Maybe it was the cold, foggy weather, or maybe the local night life had taken its toll, but the mood of this year's National Association of Realtors convention was decidedly subdued.

One conventioneer was heard muttering, "Is it just me, or is this one a bit of a snooze?" Other similar comments were abundant.

The low-key atmosphere was odd because most Realtors should be celebrating. Home sales are on the mend in the Northeast and strong in the Southeast and Midwest. Even Realtors from Southern California are seeing improvements.

But attendance - 18,000 for Nov. 15-18 - was down from last year's. Maybe, some mused, it was just the old adage: location, location, location. "This was just too far for some people to fly," said one attendee.

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Despite lender reports that Realtors are demanding illegal referral fees more often than ever, the subject was not addressed at the convention. No educational sessions focused on the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, which governs referral fees.

Art Godi, the association's president, said he was not aware of any illegal referral fee problem. "We have a responsibility, not to dictate to members, but to help them understand what the rules and regulations are. We're not a police agent," he said.

Lenders in attendance, however, insisted that illegal referral fees continue to be a problem. "We've lost a lot of business to mortgage brokers," because brokers pay referral fees, said Bob Hernandez, a mortgage loan consultant in Sacramento, Calif., with Bank of America.

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Fleet Mortgage received a best-booth award at the convention for its sailor hat giveaway. Conventioneers picked up the hats at the booth and were awarded a key that unlocked a treasure chest full of prizes whenever they were seen wearing the hat by a roving spotter.

Consequently, white Fleet hats popped up all over the city. "It's been a huge marketing success," said Paul Tobin, sales manager for Fleet Mortgage Corp. "We've even seen people wearing the hats down on Fisherman's Wharf."

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Although speculation on the outcome of HFS Inc.'s acquisition of PHH Mortgage Corp. was rampant, most hallway conversations ended with the comment, "You can't tell Realtors what to do."

Even if HFS provides in-house loan origination mechanisms via PHH to its Century 21, ERA, and Coldwell Banker offices, real estate agents will continue to work with their favorite lenders. "You just don't try to manage the (real estate) broker's business," said one ERA franchise owner.

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