Los Angeles County led all counties in the nation in mortgage originations last year, according to a study.

Originations in the county reached $15.01 billion during 1994. The next- largest mortgage volume was in Cook County, Ill., with $8.15 billion. Three of the top California counties together accounted for $27.4 billion last year, according to the report by TRW REDI Property Data, Riverside, Calif.

For a metropolitan area to remain near the top in originations, it had to have a significant increase from 1993, said market analyst Nima Nattagh. For example, Sacramento County, Calif., which ranked 20th in 1993, stayed flat in 1994 and was left behind by counties where lending increased.

"The areas with the most increase in 1994 were in the (San Francisco) Bay area and in Southern California," Mr. Nattagh said. The Northridge earthquake of January 1994 spurred an increase in FHA lending in Southern California later in the year, he said.

"What's interesting is that there is no one-to-one relationship between population levels and loan activity," Mr. Nattagh said.

The New York City area, for example, is one of the most populous areas but does not appear in the top 20. Owning a home in New York City is prohibitively costly, Mr. Nattagh said, so rental activity there is more indicative of the market.

As has been the trend for two years, mortgage lending in counties in the West such as Maricopa, encompassing Phoenix, and Clark, which is home to Las Vegas, grew about 30% last year. Those were the biggest increases in mortgage activity among the top 20 markets.

Separately, home sales declined from January to February, despite declining interest rates, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The sales rate for existing homes dropped by 0.5%, to 3.43 million, in February. And the rate of home sales that month was down 10.8% from February 1994.

The president of NAR attributed the lower sales rates to an economic slowdown caused by increases in short-term interest rates.

"In many cases, people simply don't feel good enough about job prospects or job security to buy a home," said Edmund G. Woods Jr., NAR's president. "If you think there's a chance you might be out of work, mortgage rates can't fall low enough to convince you to buy."

The Midwest's sales decline from the January pace was greater than for any other region. Home sales were down 7.7% in the Midwest, versus a 2.7% drop in the West and a 3.6% decline in resales in the Northeast from January.

NAR predicted a total of 3.728 million sales of existing homes in 1995, which would be a decline of 5.5% from 1994.

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