After a sluggish six months, mortgage lending appears poised to rebound in the second half.

Interest rates on 30-year mortgages are at their lowest level since February, giving a boost to home purchases and refinancings, observers said.

"This is certainly a better environment now than four months ago. Mortgage rates are down, and sales are up for both existing and new homes," said David Lereah, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association of America.

Mr. Lereah said second-quarter economic data convinced him that his estimate for 1997 mortgage originations-$750 billion-is too low. He is in the process of raising it.

Two major lenders-Countrywide Credit Industries Inc. and North American Mortgage Co.-said they were already reaping the rewards of a livelier market in June.

Countrywide, based in Calabasas, Calif., said its loan production climbed 5% in June, to $3.33 billion, the first year-over-year gain in 1997. And its pipeline of loans in process-a measure of mortgages that are likely to close in coming months-grew 13%, to $5.26 billion.

Meanwhile, North American, of Santa Rosa, Calif., reported that June production rose 9%, to $839 million, and applications were up 18%.

Low interest rates are the main reason for the pickup in mortgage activity, observers said.

Rates on 30-year loans-which started the year at 7.67%, dipped to 7.56% in late February, then jumped to 8.16% in mid-April-had settled down to 7.58% at the end of June, according to Freddie Mac. And some analysts think rates could head lower, citing the Federal Open Market Committee's decision last week to hold rates steady as evidence that inflation is in check.

Some borrowers are seizing the opportunity to trade in higher-rate loans. "This is an environment where you start to think about refinancing," said Kenneth A. Posner, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Co.

He noted that Countrywide's origination volume for the first four months of its fiscal 1998, which began March 1, is lagging last year's by 10%. But he expects the company to originate $39 billion for the 12 months, beating fiscal 1997's $37.8 billion.

Terry Rowland, executive vice president for production at First Nationwide Mortgage, said he expects refinancings to pick up speed this summer if rates continue to edge down.

"We look forward to lower rates, but we can have a good rest of the year even without them," Mr. Rowland said. That's because about 70% of First Nationwide's volume is from purchase loans, and volume should remain strong as long as rates don't soar, he explained.

A return to the higher rates of last spring would crimp mortgage lending volume, but if rates hover around their current level, lenders will benefit from higher purchase activity, said Gareth Plank, an analyst with UBS Securities. "This is a heads-they-win, tails-they-win environment for lenders," he said.

Indeed, the chance to boost production volume was a major reason why Dime Bancorp is purchasing North American, Mr. Plank said. That deal, announced last month, would make Dime one of the nation's 10 largest originators.

Thomas J. Healy, director of the mortgage strategies group with CoreStates Capital Markets, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the lower rates have created a renewed interest in the origination side of the business. He said that in addition to more lenders looking to buy origination networks, companies are hiring more production staff, as well.

To that end, Countrywide, already the nation's largest wholesale lender, announced last month that it will open 30 more wholesale offices this fiscal year.

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