It's a fine, time-honored tradition.

It's called "putting the bite on the folks," and while it has always been an ace in the hole for first-time home buyers running up against that harsh fact of life known as the down payment, today's soaring home prices and tight money policies on the part of lenders have made relatives a major source of financing.

Last year, according to a study just completed by Chicago Title Insurance Co.'s Family Housing Bureau, no fewer than 32.6 percent of first-time home buyers relied on relatives for some of their down payment -- up sharply from only 8.7 percent a year earlier (1978) and a distinct reversal of "a three-year trend in which first-time buyers had been increasingly able to handle down payment obligations on their own," the bureau notes.

And, proportionately, the degree of this reliance on the folks showed a near-parallel jump. Whereas only 2.9 percent of the buyers in 1978 depended on relatives for all of the down payment, the figure had risen to 6.4 percent just a year later. New home buyers getting half, or more, of the necessary down payment from relatives rose from 6.8 percent in 1978 to 15.2 percent in 1979.

Conversely, the percentage of the down payment coming from the first-time buyer's own savings and investments dropped between 1978 and 1979 from 79.9 percent to 62.5 percent.

The findings are a part of the Family Housing Bureau's fourth annual survey of recent home buyers in 11 representative markets.

Nationally, Family Housing Bureau found, the median price of homes purchased by first-time buyers last year was $50,800 -- up from $46,700 a year earlier.