Large mortgage lenders in recent years have worked obsessively to reduce the cost of making loans, but the results have been spotty at best.

Trying to counter the effects of squeezed margins and tougher competition, these lenders have poured millions into laptop computers, artificial intelligence software, and other technological tools.

But big lenders still spend, on average, between $2,400 and $2,800 to originate a mortgage-about the same as in 1990, according to an annual survey of 19 large companies by KPMG Peat Marwick.

Industry veterans said new technology has not been a fix-it for high costs because major lenders are not using it to devise smarter ways to do business.

Lenders are "just repeating the same old steps," and they "really don't understand how to get the value for their money," said Larry G. Walker, executive director of credit services at Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Tex.

To be sure, some exceptions exist. Countrywide Credit Industries Inc., parent of the nation's No. 2 mortgage lender, says it spends $1,500 to make a home loan now. Five years ago, it spent more than $2,000.

Cameron King, executive vice president of Countrywide's electronic commerce division, said there are many obstacles to deploying lending technology effectively.

For instance, if businesspeople are "involved in technology, they're not making loans," Mr. King said. He added that the "opportunity cost" of taking executives away from daily loan production is "huge."

Another hurdle is getting mortgage executives to understand that new technologies do not solve business problems on their own; they are merely tools that can be used well or poorly.

The industry's use of laptop computers illustrates this second point.

A few years ago, the origination process was a manual one. Loan officers, armed with pen and paper, would walk the borrower through an application, jotting down basic personal and financial information.

Working from that paper, lending companies would take days to verify a prospective borrower's credit rating, employment history, and financial status. Only after this was completed could a loan file be sent to an underwriter for a decision.

With laptops, a loan officer can sit in an applicant's home, key in application data, and obtain a tentative decision within minutes. This process makes applying for a mortgage less nerve-racking for prospective borrowers, leading lenders to consider laptops nifty marketing tools.

But there is a drawback. Lenders are not saving much by using laptops- certainly not enough to offset the cost of the computers, said Walter C. Klein Jr., chief executive of First Nationwide Mortgage Corp., Frederick, Md.

To pay off, laptops have to help bring in more business, but mortgage companies are not training loan officers to generate new leads with the portable systems. Instead the companies tell their employees, "We're going to teach you how to type," Mr. Klein said.

Electronic underwriting systems also have fallen short of their cost- cutting potential, experts said.

Before loans were approved by computer, lenders relied almost exclusively on the judgment and experience of their underwriters.

Now, many companies use systems designed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, the secondary market agencies that buy more than half of all loans. Lenders using the systems pay a fee of about $50 every time they submit a loan-even if it is not approved.

The electronic systems approve the safest loans right away, and refer more complicated cases to human underwriters, after highlighting potential weak spots in the applications.

Once a human takes over, lenders' savings often disappear, Mr. Klein said. Human underwriters retrace the computer's steps, and this redundancy jacks up the cost of evaluating the application.

Geoffrey A. Oliver, author of the annual Peat Marwick study, said mortgage technology has not reduced costs as expected largely because lenders have not put their full trust in the electronic systems.

"There are many processors, underwriters, and shippers out in the mortgage business that believe 'If I don't put this paper in this place, with this "t" crossed, with this "i" dotted, Fannie, Freddie, or Ginnie will force me to buy this (loan) back,'" he said.

There is anecdotal evidence showing that when big companies rethink their routines to take advantage of technological innovations, cost savings can result.

Wachovia Mortgage Co., for instance, has cut its underwriting costs in half in the last few years. The company attributes the improvement to its training of salespeople "to be credit officers rather than just originators," said Thomas W. Trotter, president of the Winston-Salem, N.C., lender.

On easy-to-process loans, officers run applications through Fannie Mae's underwriting system. This has helped Wachovia to reduce the number of specialized loan processors and underwriters, Mr. Trotter said.

Most companies, he noted, "think there is too much risk" in letting loan officers commit the company to a loan. At Wachovia, loan officers are tested rigorously, and "if they do well on the test, they're released to have this capability; if not, they're retrained," Mr. Trotter said. "If they can't get over the curve, they can't work with us."

Countrywide, meanwhile, has cut origination costs by handling work they once paid credit agencies, appraisers, and mortgage insurance companies to do, Mr. King said.

Mr. Walker of EDS noted that the effort behind deploying technology goes for naught if a lender gets distracted from the basic elements of operating a business.

He said that while trying to refinance his own mortgage, he called five large lenders one Saturday, and none was open for business.

One small mortgage broker "responded to me much more efficiently than the five biggest lenders in the country," Mr. Walker said. "They're a mom- and-pop shop with a PC," but "they have better rates and better service."

Most large lenders are "spending millions on technology, but they're not answering the phone," he said.

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