Seafirst Corp. is offering a toll-free mortgage-by-telephone service that can be accessed by realtors and their customers via cellular telephone as they look at properties.

The service is available through Seattle-based Toll Free Cellular, which is offering the service in the Puget Sound region with US West and AT&T Corp.

It's the first toll-free cellular service in the country, according to officials at the company involved in the project.

Seafirst, and other companies that subscribe to the service, pay for airtime; there is no charge to Seafirst's customers.

Toll Free Cellular plans to expand the service to over 30 states by the end of next year.

Seafirst, the Seattle-based unit of BankAmerica Corp., is using the service in conjunction with its Home Loan by Phone service, introduced in early 1993.

This service lets customers find out in a few minutes via telephone the size mortgage they qualify for. If approved, the customers receive a preapproval letter by fax, which they can present to the realtor when they make an offer on a house.

In the standard Home Loan by Phone program, Seafirst then sends out application forms, which the customer verifies, signs, and mails back.

Seafirst representatives call once a week to keep the customer abreast of significant events during the process.

The only time a customer needs to go into an office is to sign the closing papers.

With the toll-free cellular service, realtors call the toll-free telephone number and are connected to Seafirst's Home Loan by Phone service. The customer gets on the telephone and receives a determination of the size loan the customer qualifies for.

Armed with knowledge of a client's preapproved loan amount, a realtor can more accurately gauge the type of property that should be shown.

"Realtors are the biggest users of cellular telephones of any customer group," said Marlane Wolf, vice president of consumer marketing at Seafirst.

"This makes the process of buying a home much simpler," she said.

Seafirst decided to be a test site for the toll-free cellular service so that it could begin offering it in April - typically the start of the busy season for new home purchases.

Ms. Wolf used the Home Loan by Phone service this year when buying a new house. "It was the easiest closing I've ever had," she said.

Ms. Wolf said that although the realtors who use the service say they are pleased with it, far fewer than expected are using the service so far.

She blamed a lack of awareness about the service and said the bank needed to be more aggressive about advertising and marketing.

The bank has no plans now to use the service in other parts of the company.

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