As interest rates escalate, local real estate firms are adopting a variety of strategies -- from cutting their commissions to offering to sell houses free if they don't move in 90 days -- to attract customers.

While some brokers in the area are known to have lowered their rates by 1 percent, those interviewed were generally cautious about announcing the fact.

David Swinburne of Burtonsville Realty Inc. in upper Montgomery County acknowledged that it "is possible" to be charged a 5 percent commission at his firm. Six percent has been the norm in the metropolitan area.

"When the market is slow and we have to ask a seller to do what it takes to sell a house, we have to do something, too," Swinburne said. "Frankly, I think we don't have any other choice."

Although the commission -- what realtors charge homeowners for selling their property -- is supposed to be negotiated between realty brokers and their clients, few brokers in recent years have been willing to lower their rates. (Six Montgomery County realty firms were convicted of price-fixing when they agreed among themselves to raise rates to 7 percent several years ago).

Some flat-fee, discount or small real estate companies in this area have always charged 5 percent or under, however.

"Commissions have never been cast in cement," said Alisa Taylor, of the Lewis & Silverman real estate firm. "But the market is such today that we need to be more flexible. Everybody gives."

"I don't think we're seeing any more listings coming through on multi-listing at 5 percent," Swinburne said, "but on a one-to-one basis, you will find brokers are taking less."

While Realtor-run multiple listing services in this area collect information about commissions charged on properties listed for sale, officials of these services maintain that there is no way to determine how many listings are for under 6 percent.

Some real estate agents interviewed recently indictaed that there has been some willingness to come down from 6 percent, but they did not want to be identified.

But others argued that there is less flexibility with commissions now because today's market demands a knowledgeable, full-service broker who can come up with creative financing and the money that will bring off the sale.

Indeed, creative financing is the key to this market, according to most firms interviewed. While many companies admit they have fewer customers, most say their problem is not getting listings but finding buyers who can qualify for a mortgage loan or, to put it another way, getting money at a rate people can afford.

To cope with this problem, the real estate industry has come up with nearly as many different financial arrangements as customers. Buyers are assuming mortgages whenever possible, sellers are getting into the lending business themselves, and real estate firms are advancing funds to buyers so they can go to settlement.

In some cases, real estate firms are agreeing to purchase houses if they are not sold within a specified time so that buyers will not have to carry two mortgages. In other cases, realty firms such as Long & Foster have secured large blocks of money from lending institutions and can offer their customers mortgages at rates which they describe as 2 to 3 percent below the offerings of most other institutions.

Noah and Cummings Inc. announced last week that it would "sell your home in 90 days or sell it for free," except when the house is sold by an agent from another firm. In those instances, the fee is 3 percent after the 90-day period.

B. J. Purdum, vice president of the firm, said the response to the offer, which runs through April, has been strong.

"The first week, people were skeptical, but now the word is getting around and we're receiving a lot more calls and listings," he said.

Purdum said the new policy was established "to counteract all the adverse publicity about the market. People need to realize the real estate industry is not going under."

Morale boosting, in fact, has turned out to be a major new task for managers of many area real estate offices.

"Agents want to go home, eat bonbons and watch soap operas until this thing is over," said the manager of one Colquitt-Carruthers office.

Area offices and realty boards are holding breakfasts and seminars every day to educate agents on the newer, sophisticated methods of mortgage financing that have been spawned by the tight money market. The office of the Hugh T. Peck firm has set up a hot line that agents can call to find out what institutions are lending and at how much.

Many firms indicate that their sales continue to be as good as, and in some cases better than, last year but that they are working harder.

In an effort to combat the bad publicity they believe the real market has received, Realtor and builder organizations here have begun a "buy now" campaign.