One way to buy a house when you don't have much cash is with a government-backed mortgage. Last year more than 1 million people became homeowners with such loans, most of them first-time buyers and a large number either Latino or black.

In some areas of the country, though, the price of a decent house is so high that mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration cannot be used since under law the agency can only insure loans up to a certain amount.The Department of Housing and Urban Development, parent of the FHA, is aware of the problem and in the past four months has raised the upper limits on FHA loans twice -- first from $170,000 to $197,000 and now (as of Jan. 1) to $208,800.

That $208,800 is available only in the most expensive areas -- primarily the East and West coasts -- but other FHA ceilings in lower-cost areas have gone up as well.

If you're interested in an FHA-backed mortgage, talk to lenders in your area until you find one that handles them. FHA loans tend to be more complicated than the standard mortgage, but in some cases the hassle is worth it.

For example, you can get a mortgage today even if you have bad credit, but you pay a premium for your sins -- much, much higher interest rates than people with good credit pay.

If your credit is not too bad but not perfect, either, you might be able to get an FHA-backed loan even if you don't qualify for a standard mortgage at today's best rates -- about 6.8 percent.

With an FHA mortgage, you need only a 3 percent down payment and that can be a gift. And you may be able to have a higher debt load than with a conventional loan. You will have to pay mortgage insurance and it cannot be canceled during the life of the loan.

HUD says that 80 percent of FHA-insured loans go to first-time homebuyers and about 40 percent to blacks and Latinos.

Interestingly, the higher FHA limits also affect some reverse mortgages.

"By law, HUD cannot insure a reverse mortgage above the local FHA loan limit," HUD says. "Therefore an increase in the loan limit can greatly increase the value of a reverse mortgage."

If you decide on an FHA-backed mortgage with its higher debt limits, think carefully about whether you will be able to make your monthly payments and about how you would handle a financial emergency. FHA loans have a much higher delinquency rate than standard mortgages and the numbers may be enough to scare you.

For example, in June 1998 the Mortgage Information Corp. reported that serious delinquencies among FHA buyers who made a small down payment was 4.18 percent. By comparison, serious delinquencies for conventional mortgages was less than 1 percent. In other words, for every conventional mortgage that was seriously delinquent, more than four FHA-backed loans were far behind in payments.

Pamela Reeves writes this column weekly for Scripps Howard News Service