A program designed to give renters a leg up in the process of buying a home received a boost recently when two more lenders in the Washington area said they would participate.

The Community Home Buyers Program allows first-time home buyers to make down payments of only 5 percent, take out bigger mortgages and reduce their closing costs if they meet the qualification guidelines, which include completing a course on homeownership.

In the Washington area, Perpetual Savings Bank and Travelers Mortgage Services are joining other lenders in the area currently making loans under the program.

Perpetual, said company President C. William Blomquist, will make $25 million in mortgage loans under the program, which is the largest commitment by any lender in the program. Perpetual is the area's largest mortgage lender.

Travelers will have $20 million available for mortgages nationwide, including the Washington area.

Both companies plan to begin offering the required homeownership courses within the next month.

The nationwide program, aimed at low- and moderate-income families, is sponsored by GE Capital Mortgage Insurance Cos. The Raleigh, N.C.-based mortgage insurance company is insuring $800 million in mortgages under the program. The mortgage insurance reduces the lenders' risk by protecting them against financial losses if a borrower defaults on a mortgage.

Low-down payment mortgages have a higher rate of default than conventional mortgages, but GE Capital hopes that the homeownership seminars will reduce that risk.

About 175 lenders nationwide are participating in the program. The Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) is purchasing the bulk of the mortgages from the lenders.

Lenders' income and loan limits for the program vary. The Travelers program will have an annual household income limit of $62,000 and a maximum loan amount of $160,000. Mellon Bank of Maryland, which has been participating in the program for several months, has an income limit of $58,250 and a maximum loan amount of $101,250. Perpetual has not decided on income and loan limits, Blomquist said.

The difference can be dramatic: Under the Travelers program, a family with an income of $60,000 could qualify for a $160,000 mortgage instead of about $120,000 with a conventional mortgage.

The six-hour course required as part of the program covers such topics as budgeting, establishing good credit, buying a home and and maintaining a house after it is purchased.

"We want them to go in with their eyes open," said Tom Edmunds, regional vice president for Travelers in the D.C. area.

Mellon Bank said 36 people have graduated from its homeownership course, and it has lent them a total of $3.3 million of the $5 million it has committed to the program. "We've had a good response and feel very good that we can provide financing for individuals who might never have been able to buy a house," said Ronald C. Dixon, Mellon's vice president for lending.

Crestar Bank of Richmond, which has also committed $5 million to the program in the Washington area, hasn't had as much success, however. A company spokeswoman said Crestar has not made any loans through the program yet.

"Most of the people calling don't have the 5 percent {down payment} in their own funds," she said.