Robert Bryant of Washington Federal Savings and Loan Association was quoted incorrectly in Saturday's Maryland and D.C. Real Estate section. He said, "It's the obligation of the homeowner to contact the lender to discuss problems with mortgage payments."

Despite its reputation for affluence, Montgomery County is in the throes of a mortgage-default epidemic, according to county housing officials.

And to meet the growing problem, housing officials said this week they are devising an early warning system among area mortgage lenders so they can help with counseling and other services before homeowners are forced into default.

"We've seen a real increase in the last year," said Bernice Palmer, coordinator of single-family mortgage finance programs in the county's Housing Opportunities Commission.

The commission this week held a workshop to brief area lenders on the system and to seek comments on the best way to bring the commission's counselors and delinquent homeowners together before it's too late to work out problems.

Mortgages in default (more than a month overdue) in Montgomery County have risen by 33 percent in two years -- up from 86 in 1982 to 115 so far in 1984 -- and the trend is likely to continue, county officials said.

Areawide, about 3 percent of the mortgages issued by local lenders now end up in default, compared to 2 percent in previous years, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Nearly half of the people who run into financial difficulties have lost their jobs or have suffered a reduction in income, usually through divorce or separation, said Harry Jacobs, a HOC counselor.

In Montgomery County, where housing prices are so high it often takes two wage-earners to pay the mortgage, families often run into difficulties when only one spouse loses a job, Jacobs said.

"The income range of those in need of help is not necessarily low," he said. "One [family in trouble] was making $48,000 a year, and that was a family of three."

Graduated Payment Mortgages (GPMs), in which monthly payments are low at first, but rise in subsequent years, are also responsible for at least some of the defaults, Jacobs said.

Others, he said, occur when borrowers fall behind on their mortgages simply because of poor financial management.

"A lot of people don't realize what they've got themselves into, or how to get out of it," said George K. Jones, a loan officer with Congressional Mortgage Co. "They have to realize their mortgage is the first priority."

The commission began offering free mortgage counseling in 1981, but many of those who sought assistance were beyond the help of county agencies by the time they were referred by their lenders, In many of those cases early intervention could have made a difference, officials said.

The object of the early warning system is to speed up referrals, Palmer said. HOC officials asked lenders to refer their clients within 30 days of a delinquency and to assist in providing financial records and other information.

Normally, lenders wait 90 days before instituting foreclosure proceedings, but most lenders sent letters to delinquent clients warning of possible legal action at least twice before that, several lenders said.

"It's the obligation of the homeowner to contact the borrower to discuss problems with mortgage payments," said Robert Bryant, of Washingotn Federal Savings and Loan.

In many cases, either through counseling or direct negotiations with a lender, homeowners can reschedule payments or get help from state or county mortgage-assistance programs.

The Maryland Community Development Administration recently launched a $500,000 program in which unemployed workers can receive low-interest loans to pay their mortgages for up to 24 months. Fifteen people have applied for assistance since the program started in October, said Gale Jones, the program administrator.

The program is offered through local housing agencies, which are acting as referral agents, Jones said.

The Montgomery County Department of Social Services offers one-time-only grants of $500 for mortgage assistance and the Federal Housing Administration, offers assistance to financially troubled homeowners with FHA loans, Jacobs said.