The question of where home mortgage rates are heading as the nation's economy darkens elicits an ambiguous answer from experts: They are fairly confident that no big changes are in store in the next several months, but hedge their opinions with some cautionary "ifs."

The wild cards that could drive the cost of money sharply higher are the Middle East crisis and the federal budget deficit, according to a survey of real estate economists and business analysts.

Their argument is: If war breaks out in the Middle East and oil prices escalate, inflation would heat up and rates could soar. On the other hand, for long-term rates to fall significantly, the economy would have to falter to the point where inflationary pressures are counterbalanced.

But the consensus view is for long-term, fixed-rate home loans to remain roughly in their current range -- generally from 10 to 10.5 percent.

Over the past 4 1/2 years, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have fluctuated in a "very narrow range of about 1 percent with only small blips up and down," said Jesse Abraham, senior economist for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. (Freddie Mac), a major secondary market purchaser of home loans.

"It's not unreasonable to project the same scenario forward through at least the end of the year," Abraham said.

Rates have remained stable -- with occasional run-ups and dips -- both because demand has declined along with the faltering economy and inflation, until recently, has been relatively low.

Abraham noted that the average 30-year home loan rate in 1986 was 10.2 percent. The average last year was 10.3 percent and about the same average is projected for this year, he said.

For long-term rates to fall significantly, the economy must get weak enough to counterbalance inflationary pressures, said David Scott, executive director of Dr. Phillips Institute for the Study of American Business Activity at the University of Central Florida.

That hasn't happened yet.

"Right now the economy is weak, but not on its deathbed," Scott said. Two segments of the national economy are in recession -- the housing and automotive industries -- but others are holding up fairly well, he said.

The Federal Reserve Board may eventually try to encourage lower interest rates by cutting the federal funds rate -- the interest banks charge each other for overnight loans -- from 8 percent currently to 7.75 percent, Scott said. That would help make money easier to get, but primarily would affect short-term rates.

Such a cut might encourage banks to trim their prime rate, the benchmark interest rate used for lenders' most credit-worthy business borrowers, from 10 percent to 9.5 percent.

But the capital markets must be convinced inflation is not about to surge before long-term rates would be affected, he said.

The price of oil is key to inflation so all interest rate forecasts must be done with one eye on the Middle East, Scott said.

And until that situation is resolved, capital markets will be uncertain, said Richard Peach, deputy chief economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America.

"One day {Iraqi President Saddam} Hussein is raging belligerently and it looks like the price of oil could go though the sky," Peach said. "The next day he's talking about negotiating and everyone calms down a bit."

If the Middle East doesn't explode, Peach expects long-term mortgage rates for the rest of the year to fluctuate slightly in their current range of 10 to 10.25 percent.

Others agree with that evaluation.

"The most likely prospect for the next several months seems to be for continued rate stability," said Glenn Crellin, vice president of economics and research for the National Association of Realtors. "I don't anticipate much movement either way."

That agrees with the outlook of James Christian, chief economist of the U.S. League of Savings Institutions.

"I don't see rates changing much from today over the next four quarters," he said. "There'll be some day-to-day volatility, but when you average it out, there won't be much change."

Christian bases his outlook on the belief that there's an even chance the Middle East crisis will be resolved by negotiation, not war, and oil supplies won't be disrupted.

Keith Gumbinger, a spokesman for HSH Associates, a Butler, N.J., publisher of mortgage rate information, said he's "cautiously optimistic"for slightly lower mortgage rates over the next year if oil supplies aren't disrupted. Gumbinger thinks rates could fall by as much as a half percentage point.

The moribund housing industry would need long-term mortgage rates of about 9.5 percent to get it going again, Gumbinger believes.

"The budget agreement will help," Gumbinger said. "Anything that mitigates inflation fears helps."

World political instability is the wild card, he added. "The problem is you have so many lunatics out there," he said.