Tim Kalaris recalls that the woman was gasping from another labor contraction as she lay in the hospital bed about to give birth, but she was still able to answer the questions he asked over the phone ... employer's name ... address ... number of dependents ... monthly expenses.

Finally, the woman finished giving him the required information. The notes he had taken, Kalaris recalls, were barely legible, but that didn't matter: They were sufficient for Kalaris, a senior loan officer for Maryland Builders Mortgage Corp., to start processing a mortgage for the woman and her husband, who recently had decided to buy a home that they were scheduled to settle on within 60 days.

Kalaris acknowledged that it was unusual to take a loan application while a woman was in labor. But, at the couple's request, he had gone ahead.

"I had to do the application at that point because the husband, in the military, was scheduled to be out of the country for the next month and the woman went into labor a week early on the day they were supposed to meet to fill out an application. And they wanted to have the paper work completed," Kalaris explained.

Although Kalaris' experience is unusual, it represents the extent to which many mortgage companies will go these days to accommodate loan applicants in an increasingly competitive mortgage market.

Tom Marder, a spokesman for the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, a national trade group representing mortgage companies, said the number of companies joining the group increased 27 percent between 1985 and 1987, from 1,108 to 1,492, the result of new companies formed to take advantage of the skyrocketing number of homeowners seeking to refinance their mortgages at the lower rates in existence then.

But as rates began to rise last April, refinancings, which had constituted 30 percent of mortgage companies' business, dropped significantly.

The number of homes for sale has dropped as well. Overall, loan volume is half of what it was a year ago, said Warren Lasko, executive vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Consequently, as more mortgage companies compete for fewer loan applicants, loan officers, most of whom work on commission, are going out of their way to get new business.

Many now will meet with prospective borrowers in an applicant's home or office to fill out a loan application, while a significant number carry beepers and have car phones so that an applicant can reach them 24 hours a day to ask questions about their loans.

"We used to steer people away from house or office calls. It was more efficient to come to our offices, especially in 1985 and 1986 when we had a lot of refinancings. It wasn't feasible to spend time traveling when you're trying to process eight or nine applications a day," Kalaris said.

Now, however, "you do whatever it takes to do the work. What we're doing is selling money and there are a lot of people out there selling money. Many times what it comes down to is not the points and interest rates which are pretty similar but the service you provide," Kalaris said. He noted that the couple who applied for a loan while the wife was in labor had just switched from another mortgage company whose service they didn't like.

Kevin O'Leary, a loan officer for Presidential Financial Trust Inc., a Silver Spring mortgage banker, said he has traveled from his home in Gaithersburg to take an application for a $200,000 loan in an Army general's Alexandria home at 5:15 a.m. "because the general had to be in his office at 7 a.m." But he said he would also do it for a $40,000 mortgage.

"Not only must you have competitive rates and points to get people to call, you must make it easy for them to apply for the loan. That means meeting the customer where they have to be and leaving papers to be signed by a coborrower, if necessary, and then picking them up again," he said. The latest O'Leary has taken an application is 2 a.m. He said that a typical work day for him starts at about 7 a.m. and runs to 11 p.m.

At CityFed Mortgage, loan officers also make house calls and carry beepers, although no company policy compels them to do so. "I have a beeper and when someone beeps me to take a loan application, I go," said one employe who requested anonymity.

"Also, I'm accessible 24 hours a day for phone calls. I make it a point of returning phone calls quickly. That was one of the biggest complaints about loan officers in 1986 when it was nothing to have 20 or 30 phone calls when you were out to lunch."

But Susan Conrad, a loan officer for Meritor Mortgage Corp.-East in Gaithersburg, said she prefers not to go to an applicant's home to take an application.

Applicants "don't have copying machines and it's difficult to give them copies of everything," she said. However, Conrad said she will meet clients at their offices "if they are on tight schedules."

She also will take a phone application if necessary, but Meritor's loan officers can't lock in rates until the applicant signs the papers. "We also found that phone conversations tend to be garbled and they {the applicants} don't hear correctly or hear what they want to hear. It's far better to do things in person," Conrad said.

Some companies discourage their loan officers from making house calls but do offer extended hours at company offices.

Joyce Buknowsky, public relations manager for Goldome Realty Credit Corp., said the standard practice at her company is for loan officers, especially women, to meet clients in Goldome's offices for safety reasons.

But loan officers will meet applicants at their real estate broker's or Goldome's offices whenever necessary "after hours or on weekends."

Said Kalaris: "If you go that extra mile, people remember that and will use you again. If you don't, you can open yourself up to public relations problems at the least."