Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo announced Thursday that appraisals for houses being acquired with FHA mortgages will be tightened in an effort to protect home buyers, save them money and, hence, increase homeownership throughout the country.

Cuomo said at a news conference that appraisals for mortgages from HUD's Federal Housing Administration will become more thorough to uncover defects in homes before they are purchased.

Employees who are qualified to conduct FHA appraisals also will be trained and tested in the stricter appraisal procedure, Cuomo said.

Cuomo called the initiative "a giant leap forward for homeownership." About 1.1 million families got FHA mortgages last year, about 10 percent of all 1998 mortgages. FHA mortgages usually require a smaller down payment than other loans, often as low as 3 percent of the cost of the house. Closing costs can also be financed, and a perfect credit report is not needed to qualify.

Under the new initiative, home buyers seeking an FHA loan will be required to sign a form that advises them, but doesn't force them, to get a house inspection in addition to the appraisal. Home inspections are more detailed examinations.

Cuomo said potential home buyers fear two things. First is if the house is worth the purchase price. Second, are there unknown defects that will later cost money? By having FHA appraisers answer those fears, Cuomo said he believes more people will become homeowners.

"They're trying to get appraisers to take a harder look at the physical condition of properties," said real estate agent Roy Kelley of Re/Max in Gaithersburg. Kelley handles a lot of buyers with FHA loans. "I've got to think it will protect buyers."

Not all agents are so sure.

"We're already getting nitpicking requirements from FHA appraisers," said David Lloyd of Weichert Realtors in Arlington. "Things like, 'Patch cracks in sidewalks.'

"I think these provisions will hurt a lot of first-time buyers," Lloyd said. "A lot of the sellers will just refuse to fix what the appraiser says is wrong. If the buyers want the house, they'll have to do it themselves.

"Their intent is to protect the purchaser," Lloyd said. "What often happens is they just keep the purchaser from buying the home."