The cost of buying a home ranks as the number one concern for 94 percent of companies that transfer executives from low-cost to high-cost areas, according to a survey of 50 firms by Employee Transfer Corp. of Chicago. Combined with the prospect of higher real estate, income and sales taxes as well, housing costs reportedly are causing a significant number of employes to refuse to move to another city. At the same time, companies are starting to question whether moving costs estimated at $20,000 per executive are worth it.

Thirty percent of the firms surveyed reported that up to half of their employes might refuse a transfer - even with all expenses paid by the company - although most personnel officers thought no more than a quarter of their staff would decline. (The survey dealt only with the economics of transfer and did not take into consideration such factors as the difficulty of finding a working spouse a job in the same city.)

The cities most often cited as considered too expensive by some employes to warrant a move were New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Minnepolis - St. Paul, Houston, Honolulu, Washington - Baltimore, Milwaukee and Anchorage. The low - cost cities most frequently mentioned were Atlanta, Fort Worth - Dallas, Little Rock and El Paso.

"The problems of moving from a low - cost to a high - cost area aggravate the normal desire to upgrade the family's standard of living that usually accompanies a transfer," said ETC's executive vice president, Theodore D. Bell. Transfers are usually accompanied by promotions, he added, so it is understandable that executives may refuse to move unless it means a better life. Of all the transferred employes ETC surveyed, three- quarters said they were paying move just to maintain the same standard of living as before.

In recognition of this problem, a sizable number of companies (38 percent) are providing cost-of-living adjustments, while others offer some kind of financial aid such as a loan or bonus. Yet a quarter of the companies surveyed still provede no special help beyond moving expenses.

Cost-of-living increases usually are based on indices prepared by the Bureua of Labor Statistics. Bell said these do not adequately reflect the costs of the kind of upper - income housing his firm's clients desire. So ETC is preparing its own index.

ETC, which counts a sizable number of the Fortune 500 among its clients, is a subsidiary of Chiago Title and Trust Co. It works for coroporations to move employes, find them new homes and, if necessary, buy their old ones so the transfer can be completed. These services, plus counseling, scouting trips to the new area, etcetera, add up to about $20,000 per executive move.