WASHINGTON - Americans want to limit government mortgage insurance to low-income groups and first-time homebuyers, according to a survey released this week by the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America.

The study supports the trade group's position that the Department of Housing and Urban Development's FHA insurance program should be targeted to those groups alone.

Currently, most FHA-insured loans are made to low-income and first-time borrowers, but the government program in effect subsidizes these loans by also insuring lower-risk mortgages to borrowers with higher income and equity.

The survey also found that Americans favor a change in the FHA program so that the government no longer insures the entire loan amount. Private insurers, who are represented by MICA, insure only a portion of the loan, and the trade group is lobbying Congress to make the FHA follow that model.

In a prepared release, Suzanne C. Hutchinson, executive vice president of the trade group, reiterated MICA's position that 100% government insurance "undermines the incentive to underwrite loans carefully and follow up quickly if payments are missed."

The survey was done this month by Bruskin/Goldring Research of Edison, N.J. Phone interviews were done with 1,005 randomly selected people.

Here are the primary findings:

*Seventy-one percent of those contacted said they believe the government should target mortgage insurance to low-income and first-time borrowers.

*Two of three Americans believe that losses on insured mortgages should not be borne solely by the government but shared by lenders who approve the loans.

*By the same margin, those contacted said that taxpayers should not be liable for covering losses in the government's mortgage insurance program.

In April, the Mortgage Bankers Association, which opposes limiting the FHA, released a study to support its position. This study showed that 160,000 families a year would be unable to buy homes if the FHA exclusively targeted low-income households or first-time buyers.

* * *

The Federal Housing Finance Board reported this week that adjustable- rate mortgages lost ground in May to fixed-rate loans for the fourth consecutive month.

ARMs made up 38% of nongovernment loans in May. That's the lowest level since May 1994, when 36% carried variable rates.

While the average rate on fixed-rate loans fell 29 basis points in May, to 8.28%, the average rate on ARMs rose two basis points, to 7.16%.

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