The 15-percent-a-year mortgage returned to Washington this week when a handful of lenders pushed the rates they charge for some loans toward the record levels of last spring.

So far lenders are demanding 15 percent interest only on mortgages with small down payments, but rates for the standard 20-percent-down loan jumped about a quarter of a point this week to an average of 14.33 percent, a weekly rate survey shows.

The interest charges on loans with 5 percent or 10 percent down usually move up ahead of those for conventional loans, said Victor Peeke, whose firm, Interest Data Reports, gathers mortgage information for the real estate industry.

"The lenders I've talked to tell me they feel it will increase again," said Peeke.

"We've had more changes this week than in several months," he added. Almost 80 percent of the mortgage lenders in the Washington area raised at least one of their rates in the past week.

With the latest increases, local home mortgage rates have climbed by two percentage points in the past four months. From a peak of 18 percent last spring, rates fell to an average of about 12 percent in late June, but in early July began climbing slowly.

A few lenders offered mortgages with rates as low as 11 1/2 percent for a short time in midsummer, but now 13 3/4 percent mortgages are the lowest available in the Washington region, and they are rare.

The more than 100 local lenders this week quoted rates averaging 14.33 percent in the District of Columbia, 14.29 percent in Virginia and 14.36 percent in Maryland for conventional mortgages with down payments of 20 percent.

Current rates range as high as 15 1/4 percent for mortgages with a down payment of 5 percent or 10 percent. Most institutions will lend no more than $75,000 on a 95 percent mortgage.

The return of higher rates is expected to further slow real estate sales, which have improved only a little since last spring. Real estate agents say many potential buyers are unwilling or unable to meet monthly payments at the interest charges lenders are asking.

At 15 percent interest, the monthly principal and interest payments for an $80,000 mortgage total $1,054.11 Taxes and insurance would add at least $100 a month.

Unlike earlier periods of high interest rates when many lenders dropped out of the market temporarily, most banks, savings and loan associations and mortgage companies still are offering to make loans.

A number of Baltimore lenders have closed their loan windows, Peeke said. His firm also surveys lenders in California, and one that state's biggest savings and loans yesterday boosted its rate to 16 percent.

Peeke's latest survey was taken before the nation's biggest banks raised their prime lending rate to 15 1/2 percent on Thursday.