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When you set out to buy a house and start thinking about financing, one of the first things you learn is that lenders have a lot of rules, especially about income-spending ratios, down payments and credit history.

Generally, you can spend 28 percent of your gross (before taxes) monthly income on housing and your total monthly debt can be as high as 36 percent. The down payment cannot be borrowed and your credit history must show you pay bills on time.But in reality these rules are flexible, especially when business is as slow as it is now.

"In about 25 percent of the cases, we exceed our guidelines," saud Gordon Steinbach of Mortgage Guarantee Insurance Corp., a private mortgage insurer in Milwaukee.

For example, Steinbach told the trade magazine Real Estate Today that his company routinely considers utility and rent payments when looking at credit history, especially on low-income loans.

"It's important that borrowers have good credit, but the fact there's no credit history shouldn't be a problem," he said.

While down payments generally cannot be borrowed, "In some cultures, it's common to draw money from a community fund," Stein-bach said, and that's acceptable to many lenders.

Affordable housing programs for low-income borrowers allow debt ratios of 33 percent for housing and 38 percent for overall debt. But sometimes, Steinbach said, even those ratios can be exceeded.

What lenders look at is the overall financial picture, Steinbach said, and too many risk factors can scare them off. "A combination of problems - high debt ratios and a short credit history, for example, might warrant a declination."

- Changing times: The sturdy 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage is back in vogue. All through 1993 and in all but one month in 1992, that mortgage accounted for less than 60 percent of the loans sold to Fannie Mae, the mortgage buyer.

But this year, as interest rates rose and refinancing business fell, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have accounted for more than 60 percent of business since February.

- It's well known by now that most senior citizens want to age in place. According to the American Association of Retired Persons, only 15 percent of those over age 55 want to move, and most want to stay in the same county or state.

That's why the suburbs of major metropolitan areas now have some of the fastest-growing populations over age 65.