The Federal Trade Commission yesterday accused six major real estate title insurance companies of price-fixing in title examination and settlement services in 13 states.

The complaint accuses the six of using rating bureaus -- private organizations that file joint rates for their members -- to fix prices for these services in 13 states. The agency said that if it is successful, consumers, particularly home buyers, would benefit because "free and open competition" would set rates "rather than agreements among companies."

Prices for the services currently range from $500 to $800, depending on the state, the FTC said.

The companies involved are: Ticor Title Insurance Co., of Los Angeles; Chicago Title Insurance Co., of Chicago; Safeco Title Insurance Co., of Los Angeles; First American Title Insurance Co., of Santa Ana, Calif.; Lawyers Title Insurance Co., of Richmond, and Stewart Title Guaranty Co., of Galveston, Tex.

None of those reached yesterday had seen the complaint, and most had no comment.

But a spokesman for Ticor, who said he had seen a draft, said, "We believe the Federal Trade Commission is wrong as a matter of fact and law," and called the action "entirely unwarranted." He said Ticor would defend itself and expects to prevail.

Title insurance protects buyers of real estate against prior claims on the property they buy. Title search and examination involve checking the ownership rights of a piece of property and indentifying actual or potential claims on it. It is routinely performed before title insurance is issued and is often required by lenders as well.

Settlement services are performed in connection with closing of a real estate sale and include supervising preparation, execution and recording of documents.

Certain state-regulated insurance activities are exempt from federal antitrust law, but the FTC argues that these services are not part of the "business of insurance" as defined by the statute.

The complaint will be heard before an administrative law judge, whose decision can be appealed to federal court.