The Maryland Attorney General's office ruled yesterday that real estate agents may no longer charge a special commission fee for arranging temporary loans for home buyers who purchase new homes before their current residences are sold.

Some suburban Maryland real estate brokers have been charging a 1 percent commission for the loan service in addition to their normal sales commissions, according to the legal opinion issued yesterday.

Many of the larger real estate firms in Maryland arrange the short-term loans, called bridge loans, to enable homeowners to buy new houses while their old homes are still up for sale, an industry source said.

The practice is useful for a homeowner who finds a house he wants to buy but doesn't have enough cash for a down payment until he sells the house in which he is living.

The real estate broker requires the homeowner give the broker exclusive rights to sell his current residence. And the broker commonly adds a sales commission of 1 percent more than the usual commission for selling the house, the opinion said. In return, the real estate broker arranges a "bridge loan," either lending the money himself or getting it from a bank or other lending institiution, the opinion states.

State Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), the real estate lawyer who sought the opinion, said the attorney general's ruling may take away the incentive for real estate agents to arrange the loans for their clients.

"Why shouldn't (the broker) be able to charge for going out and performing the service of finding a loan?" Levitan asked.

But Jesse Peck, president of the Montgomery County Board of Realtors, said he does not think a broker "has a right to a fee for finding financing."

"We're here to sell property, not to arrange financing," he said.

Another industry source said the ruling will not stop brokers from arranging the loans because they are essential to help homeowners buy new homes.

With the soaring interest rates and tight money of recent weeks, there has been little use for the short-term loan arrangements, the source said, "but the service will become important again."

Although brokers may call the fee an additional commission, it is actually a "finder's fee," the attorney general ruled, and as such violates a state law enacted last year.

If the broker actually lends the money himself, collection of the commission is prohibited by another state law that sets out rules on second mortgages.

An official at the realty firm of Colquitt-Carruthers said his company until recently charged 1 percent commission for arranging such loans, but also shared payment of the loan interest with the homebuyer.

"We perform a service," said company senior vice president Gordon Carey. "We pay part of the interest payments."

Carey said in the future if the company cannot charge a commission fee, it would still help arrange the loan but most likely would not share payment of the interest costs.