Referrals by real estate agents are pure gold for mortgage lenders, according to a new survey done for Norwest Mortgage Inc., Des Moines.

That finding is hardly a surprise to the mortgage industry. Lenders are always seeking to develop relationships with realty agents and builders in order to collar loan customers early in the homebuying process. And HFS Inc., which operates three major chains of real estate agencies, has agreed to acquire PHH Corp., a mortgage lender noted for its low-cost originations.

But the survey provided an interesting confirmation of just how powerful referrals can be. The survey, by Dove Associates of Boston, found that nearly three-quarters of homebuyers referred to lenders by their realty agents closed loans through the referral.

Furthermore, referrals are almost universal, with 85% of respondents to the survey reporting they had been referred by their real estate office. "Realtors continue to play a critical role in helping their clients with the entire homebuying process," said Doug Rossbach, vice president of marketing at Norwest Mortgage.

Lenders, though, must earn a place on referral lists by offering extra services through realty offices, the survey found. The typical lender on a referral list offered prequalifications, at least 15 loan options, a local office, and quick processing through advanced technology.

The need for a local office was particularly significant at a time when many lenders are considering Internet and other remote marketing techniques. About two-thirds of first-time homebuyers said they preferred to submit a loan application at a local office. About the same proportion of repeat buyers expressed the same preference.

About 70% of all homebuyers said final loan approval should take two weeks or less.

Significantly, the survey found that in-house lenders had not made deep inroads at real estate offices. Just one-quarter of all realty offices have such a capability, and only about 60% of agents used their in-house lender.

Norwest said these findings confirmed that its own marketing strategies are effective. In announcing the survey results, it took the opportunity to tout its own virtues, saying it is the largest residential lender, can approve loans in as little as 24 hours, offers 60 kinds of loans, and has one of the largest branch networks.

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