When Manfred Eichner needed a mortgage to buy his condo last September, he knew he wanted two things: to save time and to avoid poor bank service. His solution? To surf the net for a loan.

Although the pediatrician has taken mortgages before, this was his first time applying over the Internet. Eichner got final approval in two weeks, half the time it would take through traditional channels. "I wouldn't do it any other way now," he says.

And Eichner isn't alone. As customers migrate to on-line mortgage banking, American Finance and Investment (AFI), Inc., a subsidiary of Virginia First Savings Bank, wants to deliver better customer service via the Internet. Fairfax, VA-based AFI intends to become the first mortgage lender to fully automate the marketing, selling and approval of mortgages within minutes over the Internet.

To do so, AFI licensed Brightware, Inc.'s BrightResponse application to act as an inbound telemarketing agent on AFI's Cybersmart Instant Mortgage Web site. The interactive system enables AFI to automate its responses to e-mail and Web inquiries from customers shopping for mortgages. This means that consumers will be able to obtain detailed information, apply for a loan, and have questions answered without having to speak to any loan officers at the institution.

Here's how it works: once a customer contacts AFI and completes an on-line loan application, the application is routed to another system incorporating Novato, CA-based Brightware's artificial intelligence engine and Fannie Mae's Desktop Underwriter for rapid loan approval.

The challenge with Internet mortgage lending is that consumers, particularly first-time home buyers, want someone to talk them through the process. Until recently, that hand-holding has been missing from Web-based activity. But AFI president Jack Rogers argues that he can provide customers with the support they need by electronically answering questions and acting on requests. And as the technology becomes more accepted, Williams adds, consumers will prefer this newfound independence. AFI plans to set up an on-line chat file by May, followed by on-line video conferencing in July.

AFI is not alone in staking its mortgage claim on the Web. Keystroke Financial Network of Seattle is introducing a system to assess credit risk and quote mortgage rates for accounts assigned ratings from "A" to "C"-a first in Web history, says Keystroke vp Joe Hausauer.

-mulhern tfn.com

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