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THINKING OF BUYING? WIZARD MAY HELP

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If you like to play around on the Internet and are thinking about buying a house, you might enjoy Countrywide Home Loans' Home Wizard site.

It allows you to plug in numbers to see how large a mortgage you can qualify for at current interest rates.You must put in your monthly gross income, how much cash you have on hand, what your current monthly housing payment is, the total of your other monthly debts and how big a down payment you can make.

Then the Wizard asks you to choose a state, a county, the type of house you want (single family, condo or townhouse).

After you have filled in all the blanks, the Wizard tells you the highest loan amount for which you can qualify, based on that information and current interest rates.

For example, I put in a gross monthly income of $4,000 ($48,000 a year, near the average for most homebuyers) $12,000 cash, a house payment of $900 and $300 in other monthly obligations. Then I chose an $8,000 down payment, and a single-family house costing anywhere from $95,000 to $135,000.

The Wizard told me the highest loan amount for which I could qualify would be $119,747 for a 30-year fixed-rate loan.

It also gave me some other options and estimates, based on loans with points and no points. It estimated the property taxes and insurance in the state I had chosen, Jefferson County, Ariz., at random, in this case.

Then I tested the Wizard again with most of the same information, but reduced my cash on hand to $9,000 and increased the monthly obligations to $500. Alas, the Wizard told me, "You must have at least $2,000 in Cash Reserves. Total cash available must be greater than Total Down Payment plus $2,000."

A day earlier, I tested the Wizard by putting in another state, Virginia, and it gave me more loan options, including ARMs and FHA-insured mortgages.

If you're interested in playing with the Wizard, you can find it at http://www.countrywide.com. If you have trouble finding it, call toll-free 800-435-6276.

There's no obligation to get a loan from Countrywide, which calls itself the nation's largest independent mortgage lender, when you use the Internet site.

- Freddie Mac, the big secondary mortgage lender, is testing a program with the Federal Housing Administration to speed up notoriously complicated and slow FHA-insured loans.

If you're thinking about getting an FHA-backed loan, you might be interested in becoming one of the 4,000 to 6,000 people expected to take part in the test over the next six months, starting in September.

Ten lenders are taking part and a call to any one of them, or their branches, should get you started on the process. Potential buyers from all the states can take part; some of the following lenders have offices nationwide.

As this is a brand-new program, you may find people in branches who don't know what you're talking about. Persist until you find someone knowledgeable, even if you have to go to the home office:

AmerUs Mortgage, Des Moines, Iowa; Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises, Chattanooga, Tenn.; Colonial Mortgage, Montgomery, Ala.; Countrywide Mortgage, Pasadena, Calif.; County Mortgage, West Caldwell, N.J.; Crestar Mortgage, Richmond, Va.; Flagstar Mortgage, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; McCue Mortgage, New Britain, Conn.; North Carolina Housing Agency, Raleigh, N.C.; Zions Mortgage, Salt Lake City.