ATLANTA, JAN. 21 -- The Washington-based Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) today said it will begin making direct loans to home builders under an experimental program designed to put money into the hands of builders squeezed by the credit crunch.

The program, to begin in the next three months, will help fund $100 million worth of loans for houses costing no more than $191,250.

Usually, Fannie Mae purchases mortgages from lenders, which it then pools together and sells to other investors. But this latest program would commit some of its own money to finance houses directly because funds from traditional lenders have begun to dry up.

A survey of 1,007 home builders attending the National Association of Homebuilders's national convention here, where the Fannie Mae pilot program was announced, said they were experiencing increased difficulty obtaining money to build homes.

Although the amount of money involved in the pilot program is relatively small, the symbolism is important, said David Ledford, NAHB vice president.

"In part, this is a vote of confidence by Fannie Mae that it thinks construction loans are not all that risky," Ledford said.

The entry by Fannie Mae into the construction side of the home-building business is the latest in a series of moves to help provide low- and moderate-income housing.

The Congressionally-chartered company has funneled $5 billion in mortgage money over the past three years into special home loans for buyers of modest means.

The firm is also the largest investor in low income housing tax credits, supplying the equity builders need to produce qualifying rental housing.

Under the construction-loan program, a bank or savings and loan will make a loan of up to $6 million for a housing project that must be completed within 18 months.

The lender will advance the funds for the first 50 percent of the revolving credit line. Fannie Mae will provide the remaining amount, but be paid back first as each home is sold.

Fannie Mae and the lender will share equally in any losses that occur at any point when Fannie Mae's money is outstanding.