The mortgage industry has long seen first-time buyers of affordable housing as a vast untapped market. Lenders envision millions of new customers who presently don't even know they are qualified for a home loan.

But this big market niche also raises some knotty questions. How do you reach people who don't know they can become homeowners? And how will the loans perform once they are made?

The Federal National Mortgage Association has just formed an institute that aims to answer these and other questions and has gathered substantial financial support from major lenders, mortgage insurers, and housing and realty associations.

The new group is the American Homeowner Education and Counseling Institute, and it was launched with a $2 million donation from the Fannie Mae Foundation. Its broad goal is to improve the effectiveness of homeowner education and counseling, but it will also be doing what amounts to some nitty-gritty market research.

Six big lenders have each kicked in $200,000 to become charter members of the institute. They are Chase Manhattan; Citicorp, through its foundation; Countrywide Home Loans; GMAC Mortgage Corp.; NationsBank Corp.; and Norwest Mortgage Inc.

The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. has also pitched in $200,000.

Among trade associations, Mortgage Insurance Companies of America contributed $600,000, and the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, the National Association of Realtors, and National Association of Homebuilders each came up with $100,000, and America's Community Bankers chipped in with $50,000.

"In work we did with lenders, insurers, nonprofit groups, and others, we found a broad consensus that there was a need to develop this market segment further," said Martin Levine, senior vice president for low-income and moderate-income housing at Fannie Mae.

"One of the missing links was a uniformly effective counseling system so lenders and those servicing or investing in loans could have better- prepared borrowers and in larger numbers."

Julie Gould, Fannie's vice president for community lending, emphasized the importance of increasing the pool of qualified borrowers rather than just educating the existing pool.

Mr. Levine said one of the institute's first projects would be to do research to determine whether counseling is cost effective in broadening the pool of borrowers and improving the credit quality of loans.

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Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were adequately capitalized as of the end of the first quarter, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight.

The office's report put Fannie's core capital at $11.38 billion, or about $703 million more than the minimum required - a margin of roughly 6.5%. Freddie's capital was put at $6 billion, a surplus of $240 million, or 4.1%.

The office, headed by Aida Alvarez, continues to work on a set of risk- based capital standards. No formal date for completion has been set. The risk-based standard will mean additional capital requirements because an allowance for foreclosure losses will be mandated in addition to core capital.

The risk-based standards will be based on a worst-case scenario that is now being developed by the agency.

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