Home-mortgage kickbacks and referral-fee arrangements between lenders and real estate agents are popping up around the country. Some of them are innocuous sounding. Most of them are illegal.

Item: A West Coast lender created a "point" system for jumbo mortgages directed its way by agents. For every mortgage applicant steered to the lender, the agent would rack up a specified number of points following loan closing. Like airline frequent-flier programs, higher point totals produced progressively higher prizes. Among the splashiest were fully paid two-week vacations at resorts in Mexico, diamond rings and water ski boats.

Item: An East Coast lender promised agents that for simply telling their home buyer clients about the lender's programs, the agent's name would be dropped into a hat. The winner of each periodic blind drawing would get a Caribbean cruise for two, complete with round-trip airfare. The more referrals, the more chances in the hat.

Item: Growing numbers of mortgage firms are studying ways to provide cash payments, or indirect dollar benefits in the form of cut-rate loan deals, to real estate agents, lawyers and others who steer business their way. Some of them are seeking advance federal approval for their fee programs, but others are simply pushing ahead with no questions asked.

So what? Such arrangements may seem harmless, but federal officials say they are just the tip of an ominous, emerging trend -- a willingness by lenders to aggressively challenge the legal boundaries of the 14-year-old federal antikickback, consumer protection statute: the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act.

RESPA prohibits fees, kickbacks and the giving or taking of "anything of value" in exchange for referrals of home settlement-related business. Penalties range as high as a year in prison and a $10,000 fine. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency with prime responsibility for monitoring and enforcing RESPA, believes that Congress intended to treat taking mortgage loan applications and making mortgage loans as activities covered by the antikickback statute. HUD has drafted proposed regulations for RESPA that embrace that point of view.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is blocking issuance of those regulations. Citing two recent court decisions, OMB maintains that HUD should keep its nose out of lenders' referral-fee practices. Any new RESPA rules issued during the rest of the Reagan administration, one official said, "will have no teeth" on lender kickbacks to real estate agents.

Should that concern you as a consumer? Absolutely, say federal and private mortgage-market experts, including the head of one of the largest trade groups representing home lenders.

"Cash and prizes for real estate loan referrals are light years away from the cash and prizes you see in other fields, like the motivational premiums car salesmen get from manufacturers," said one HUD official. "When you walk into a Chrysler showroom, you know you're going to be hearing about Chrysler products. You know the salesman is being rewarded by Chrysler. But home buyers are in a very different position dealing with their real estate agent. When the agent suggests a particular lender for their mortgage, and puts them in touch with a loan officer, the buyers are likely to be trusting. They believe the agent wants them to get the best possible deal on financing."

But when referral-fee cash, points, cruises and other gravy are motivating the agent, the trust may be misplaced. The lender paying the freight may not be the best, cheapest, quickest or most efficient. The lender may simply be first with the fee.

Warren Lasko, executive vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, makes no bones about his trade group's view of such conflict situations. "We are against referral fees, pure and simple. They're bad for the {home} buyer. They're bad for the mortgage market."

Lasko's group has called on HUD and the White House to issue the RESPA rules early in 1988. Absent that, said Lasko, his association may push for new congressional action, such as amendments to RESPA that make the antikickback rules directly applicable to all phases of mortgage lending.

Other real estate trade lobbies haven't yet declared their positions.

The mortgage bankers took an outspoken stance on the issue even though several of the trade group's members, including Citicorp, the largest mortgage originator in the country, have active referral programs or planned programs ready to launch. Citicorp's program, called MortgagePower, was approved by HUD two years ago and involves fully disclosed payments from borrowers to brokers.

But Lasko says a market where real estate agents' or lawyers' financing advice is for sale to the highest bidder "is not in our members' interest, or the public's interest, in the long run." That's why the kickback controversy won't go away in 1988.