The wave of lawsuits over escrow balances against servicers of home loans caught lenders by surprise when it began a few years ago and caused a lot of worry.

But now, despite the rapid spread of class actions, the damage to lenders has been minor.

Courts have been relatively kind to lenders, and the scores of out-of-court settlements have not resulted in significant losses either, at least so far.

Nearly every major lender, including American Residential Mortgage Co., Bank of America, and NationsBank, is still fighting some class actions related to escrow accounts.

The lawsuits started soon after six state attorneys general declared in 1990 that lenders were inappropriately putting loan fees and other charges into escrow accounts.

Their findings have been used as the basis of the suits.

GMAC Mortgage Co., based in Elkins Park, Pa., was the first lender sued for its handling of escrow payments.

The six attorneys general from New York, California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Texas - picked GMAC almost at random.

At least 113 class actions pending in 16 states. Lawyers say new classes are being formed at a rate of two to three a month.

An informal survey of cases around the country shows that 17% of all escrow class actions have been settled. About 4% have been dismissed.

In addition to GMAC, Source One Mortgage, Fleet Mortgage Group, BaneBoston Mortgage and First Union Mortgage have all had cases decided or have reached settlements with classes.

Settlements have not yielded borrowers any "trips to Hawaii," said David S. Hay, general counsel, Chemical Mortgage Co.

In a settlement by Barclays, the bank was to return to borrowers any surplus in their escrow accounts, plus interest.

Using the settlement by Fleet Mortgage Group Inc., Columbia, S.C., as an example, Barclays should not expect to shell out much money.

Fleet has refunded money to 898,000 of its customers since early 1993. but it has paid out only $712,000.

Plaintiffs' lawyers have fared far better, reaping millions in fees, according to people familiar with the suits.

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