Commonwealth Bancorp is finding that mortgage lending requires commitment, focus, and plenty of drive-along the I-95 corridor.

Loan officers with the growing Pennsylvania banking company spend a lot of time traveling stretches of the interstate between Boston and Washington to meet with customers and attend sales and training meetings.

Comnet Mortgage Services, the mortgage division of the Valley Forge- based bank, expanded operations further along I-95 last month by purchasing Homestead Mortgage, a small lender with five offices in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Terms were not disclosed.

Comnet has its eye on more purchases of offices from lenders that lack the heft or the stomach to stay in the turbulent market, said Peter A. Kehoe, the company's president. "You're looking at a mortgage industry with a lot of conflicting things going on. We see opportunity in that."

Homestead produced about $160 million of mortgages last year, while Comnet's volume from eight offices in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania was $460 million.

Although it was a big step for Comnet, the Homestead purchase still keeps operations within a comfortably narrow range, Mr. Kehoe said.

"By staying along I-95, we don't run the risk of diluting ourselves and our resources," he said.

Comnet is still focusing on the white-collar middle- and upper middle- class residents that it always has, Mr. Kehoe said. And the emphasis on a particular region has allowed the lender to tailor products such as jumbo mortgages to residents, he said.

Comnet is also blitzing the area with advertisements and promotions to keep its name in front of residents, he said.

The area is indeed worth dueling for, according to a newly released report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Sales of existing homes were especially strong in the Boston area" in 1996, HUD said, and business was also bustling in the Middle Atlantic states.

Certainly other lenders-like giants Fleet Mortgage and Countrywide Credit Industries-see similar potential in the area. "You can't go two miles along that stretch of I-95 without running into someone's loan office," said Charles M. Hebert, principal with Ferguson & Co., a bank consulting firm in Irving, Tex.

But Mr. Kehoe says Comnet's local roots can keep the company competitive. "We know the market so much better than the larger lenders," he said. "We're able to react more quickly, and our customers recognize that."

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