Homeowners aren't as affluent a group these days as they used to be, according to an annual homeowner survey by Chicago Title and Trust.

And while that may suggest they'll be less able to trade up to costlier homes, lenders have little reason to worry. Purchases at the lower end of the income scale are helping to shore up originations, the study found.

The Chicago Title family of title insurers, all subsidiaries of Alleghany Corp., attributes the narrowing income between homeowners and others both to homebuying programs and the growing role senior citizens play in the housing market.

"There were more programs in 1995 for low-income, first-time buyers, both on a federal and local level," explained John Pfister, vice president of marketing research for Chicago Title.

And as the U.S. population that already owns homes ages into retirement, income figures for this growing segment decrease.

In part because of programs that ease lower-income segments of the population into homeownership, the average down payment made by first-time homebuyers continues to decrease gradually. It fell from 14% of home value in 1993 to 13.3% in 1995, the study found.

But the average down payment for repeat homebuyers continues to rise - up 1.4%, to 26.8% of home value, last year.

In addition, the center of the homebuying market has continued to shrink in recent years.

The proportion of repeat home purchasers with average or slightly above- average incomes fell to 22.8% in 1995, according to the survey. In 1993, more than 31% of repeat buyers fell into the middle-income category, with combined family earnings of $41,000 to $60,000. Corporate layoffs were to blame, said Mr. Pfister. "People need to have a great deal more confidence in the economy and how they relate to it" before homebuying begins to increase, he said.

And regardless of shifting originations data, refinancing volume should give lenders plenty to do in the next few months. Many industry observers predict the Federal Reserve will cut rates again at the end of March, and perhaps a third time before the presidential election.

At current interest rates, refinancings already represented 52.6% of total application volume last week. That was a 1,044% increase in applications to refinance from the year before.

As mortgage lenders handle this heightened volume, they must make sure they don't repeat the mistakes made in the last refinancing boom, Mr. Pfister stressed.

"That nailed a lot of lenders," he said. "They were staffed up and then the refinances disappeared. I hope lenders learned their lesson."

Nationwide, average monthly mortgage payments increased slightly during 1995, to $988, from $945 the year before. Cleveland took home the award for lowest monthly payment, $751, and San Francisco remained highest, at $1,497.

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