People having sleepless nights over finding and financing a house can now get fast relief.

SunTrust Bank Atlanta has initiated a service that allows home shoppers to prequalify for a mortgage by phone, even in the dead of night. The system, called StepOne, is automated and available 24 hours a day.

Norwest Mortgage Inc. introduced a similar system in the Northeast earlier this year through PMI Mortgage Insurance Co., San Francisco. The lender reported pulling in more than 250 leads as a result of a small newspaper advertisement it ran for a few weeks.

Norwest was especially pleased with the responses because most came from people planning to buy homes rather than refinance. This gives the company a chance to solidify relations with realty agents by referring business to them.

SunTrust believes it is the first lender in the Southeast to offer the service, which is available throughout its four-state service area. Its system has been operative for only a few weeks but is already generating brisk consumer response, according to Mike Esper, a marketing executive with the parent SunTrust Banks Inc.

The automated system is one of the newest wrinkles in efforts by lenders to reach potential borrowers earlier in the homebuying process. Many have introduced quick prequalifications, usually through terminals at real estate or builders' offices. Some also offer prequalifications by phone, usually with human interaction, or by fax.

On the SunTrust system, callers are prompted to enter information about themselves and their finances by using their phone's keypad. The system then checks credit bureau records and responds with information on the maximum home price a household can afford, the maximum mortgage for which the family can qualify, and other details.

The bank says the phone process usually takes less than five minutes to complete. Loan officers respond with a phone call to explain options either the same day or the next morning.

H. David Langston, a senior vice president who heads SunTrust's mortgage division, said, "Most consumers look for homes in the evenings and on weekends, times when most lenders are closed. StepOne enables prospective homebuyers to initiate the homebuying process and get lending information at their convenience."

The SunTrust and Norwest/PMI systems are both supplied by Strategic Solutions Group, Atlanta. Mr. Esper said the bank has options as to which credit bureau the system will access.

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