Mortgage bankers across the country are optimistic that for them if not for thrifts, this year will end up surpassing 1994 - even with rates continuing to creep up.
"Volume is not what it was in the refinancing boom two years ago, but on the whole things are going great," said Jacqueline Buonaiuto, vice president at Residential Mortgage Banking, a newly acquired unit of Roslyn (N.Y.) Savings Bank.
The mortgage company's clients, which range from low-income purchasers of first homes to middle-aged couples moving up to mansions, want to make their move while rates are still low, Ms. Buonaiuto said.
The company's volume has doubled over the last year from a surge of customers who are cautious but anxious to buy, she said.
Adjustable-rate mortgages are more popular lately with customers up and down the East Coast, according to American Home Funding, a Richmond, Va., a unit of Rochester Community Savings Bank.
The mortgage company, whose customer base spans from Buffalo to southern Florida, expects to do a bit more business this year than last.
"Our sense is that interest rates will stay in a relatively narrow band," said Paul Reid, president of American Home Funding. "Things should be steady as she goes, or result in a little improvement."
CoreStates Mortgage Services Corp., with operations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is seeing an increase in fixed-rate loans, but at the expense of adjustable-rate products, executives said.
"We think things will pick up a bit this year, but it's nothing to get really excited about," said Vincent Dibiase, senior vice president with the mortgage bank.
Most projections for the mortgage industry as a whole call for a substantial pickup in the second half that might bring loan volume for the year back to about what it was last year.
But mortgage companies are expected to do much better than thrifts.
Mr. Dibiase and other executives at mortgage banks said they were encouraged by the continued pickup in housing starts. The Commerce Department last week said housing starts rose 6.7% in July, their biggest gain in 16 months. Government economists attributed the increase to interest rates' remaining relatively low.
The average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 7.95% and the average one- year adjustable-rate mortgage was 6.18% last week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
Economic conditions may keep rates low, at least for the time being, industry experts said.
"The rates are still pretty low, so there are plenty of products for people," said R. Mark Harry, vice president with Harry Mortgage Co., Oklahoma City.
According to Mr. Harry, the real reluctance comes not from fear of rates but from customers' belief that they can't qualify for products.
"We still see all types of building going on," he said. "There are so many loan types out there, we can find a product for just about anyone."