The Tampa area ranks first in the nation in housing affordability, but not because of local mortgage rates.

People who bought homes there last year typically committed themselves to pay $850 a month on their loans, including taxes and insurance, or about 25.5% of income, according to U.S. Housing Markets. The newsletter bases its ranking on a conventional mortgage sample provided by the Federal Housing Finance Board.

But Tampa-area buyers also paid the highest average rate for 30-year fixed-rate loans - 7.35%.

The San Francisco market was last in affordability, with a $1,950 average payment, requiring 42% of income. Homebuyers there paid the lowest rates-averaging 6.85%-but new home prices were higher.

The biggest factor behind the difference in affordability was home prices. The average loan amount was about $100,000 in Tampa, $236,000 in San Francisco.

"Even though interest rates may be lower in San Francisco, the payments on longer loans for a high house price might be more than the average family can handle," said Brian Carey, an economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The high rates on Tampa-area mortgages are a spillover from South Florida, where foreclosure rates are high, said J. Robert Pinion, vice president at Excel Mortgage Network in Tampa. In contrast, Mr. Carey said, more San Francisco borrowers probably qualify for adjustable mortgages, on which rates have been lower.

Still, it is the "easiest it's ever been to get a mortgage in Tampa," Mr. Pinion said. He depends on a credit scoring system to increase his lending selectivity and protect his brokerage's interests in the event of a downturn in the economy, he said.

After Tampa, the metropolitan area with the lowest average monthly payments was Greensboro, N.C.

With property there appreciating and incomes rising, "good-quality loans are not that hard to come by," said Jon DeHart, branch manager in Greensboro for National City Mortgage Co., which is based in Miamisburg, Ohio.

Next in affordability was Kansas City, Kan. Joe O'Flaherty, vice president of North America Savings Bank in nearby Grandview, Kan., said he is protecting his loans by staying close to traditional underwriting guidelines.

Nationally, the share of income needed to purchase a home remained steady, at 31%, from 1996 to 1997, U.S. Housing Markets said. Prices were higher, but so were incomes, and interest rates were down.

Housing became less affordable by mid-1998, however, according to a second-quarter report from the National Association of Home Builders. Interest rates continued to decline, but not dramatically enough to counteract a rise in home prices.

Average rates on new loans dipped only one basis point from the first quarter to the second, the trade group said, but the median home price rose $6,000.

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