Like thousands of other Washington-area homeowners, John Bell was excited when he heard that mortgage rates had fallen below 10 percent for the first time since 1979. He saw it as a great opportunity to cut his monthly home loan payments by refinancing the 12 1/2 percent VA mortgage on his house in Seabrook.

His excitement quickly turned to anger, however, when he tried to arrange a meeting with his mortgage lender, Cameron Brown.

"I started calling a month ago," Bell said, adding that, as his impatience increased, so did the frequency of calls to the loan office. "I then started calling every day. Finally, I said if a loan officer didn't call back, I'd go elsewhere to refinance my mortgage," said Bell, who bought his house in 1982.

On Wednesday, Bell got his meeting to refinance his mortgage, but he said Cameron Brown told him it would take two to three months to consider it.

With thousands of area homeowners rushing to refinance their home loans, mortgage lenders' backlogs of unprocessed applications are increasing. Even when a persistent homeowner who wants to refinance finally manages to talk to a loan officer, it will take months to process the applications, many lenders reluctantly admit.

In some cases, mortgage lenders temporarily have stopped taking refinancing requests to catch up with the stacks of mortgage applications on their desks. The refinancing crunch is bad news for people such as Bell who are afraid that the lower rates they frantically are trying to lock into will be lost in a few months.

"I'm concerned because you never know what's going to happen to the economy," said Bell, who added that it wouldn't be worth it for him to refinance his mortgage if rates go back above 10 1/2 percent. Only a few area mortgage companies will agree to freeze an interest rate for up to 60 days, a selling point that could be meaningless because many applications are taking more than two months to process.

Philip Mahoney, regional vice president for Cameron Brown, said lower mortgage rates have dramatically changed the ways lenders are doing business, especially in the last three weeks when more and more homeowners have become aware of the falling interest levels.

During the days of higher mortgage rates, "We'd wash your car, make your lunch and have five loan officers to help you," Mahoney said.

Today, with Cameron Brown's five regional offices receiving nearly 1,000 phone calls a day for refinancing information, Mahoney said many of his loan officers are working into the night, occasionally catching some sleep on office couches, to process mortgage applications in what has become a seven-day-a-week job. He said the refinancing phenomenon has forced him to hire 20 additional workers, including 10 loan officers.

As a result, Cameron Brown, like other area mortgage lenders, now is limiting refinancing applications only to homeowners who already hold mortgages with their company.

Because applications for refinancing must be processed in the same manner as applications for new mortgages, the delays have become an industrywide problem, affecting not only homeowners but also lenders, appraisers, credit bureaus and settlement attorneys.

Sovran Mortgage Corp., a major Washington area lender, this week stopped taking any refinancing applications for 30 days.

The staffs of the Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration loan programs also are finding it hard to cope with the refinancing glut.

James Nalitz, the loan guarantee officer for the VA's Washington regional office, said his division is receiving 1,200 loan applications each week, 600 more than his staff can handle and 1,000 more than normal. He attributed the processing delays to the application volume, backlogs at appraisal and credit-reporting firms, and budget cutbacks brought on partly by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced-budget requirements.

I. Margaret White, manager of the local field office for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said the refinancing craze has resulted in a backlog of 3,600 FHA loan applications at the regional division.

Homeowners seeking to refinance, particularly those who submit numerous applications in search of the lowest rate, "are clogging the pipeline," said Michael Massella, regional vice president for Investors Home Mortgage.

William Middleton, manager of the Weaver Brothers offices in the District and Montgomery County, said, "The entire system is breaking down due to the workload. It's just unfortunate that the rates didn't come down on a gradual basis."