In the category of "Does this really surprise anyone?" comes the following from Fannie Mae:

Only two of every five Americans understand that chronic failure to pay bills on time would be a big problem in qualifying for a mortgage, while 50 percent believe it would be a minor problem or no problem at all.

I figured this out 30 years ago, when my father was a real estate agent. Perhaps a third of his buyers--both working-class and middle-class--didn't make the cut because they had bad credit.

Fannie Mae Chairman Franklin D. Raines said he considered failure to understand the importance of good credit a new barrier to homeownership.

This is particularly sad when you consider that a lot of traditional obstacles--racial discrimination and lack of a down payment, to name only two--have eased considerably over the decade, although I doubt they will ever be entirely removed.

The revelation about credit comes from Fannie Mae's eighth annual national housing survey. Fannie Mae, which provides mortgage money to lenders, polled about 1,900 people, including almost 900 who had recently gone through the mortgage process.

Some of what the survey found is good news, attributable to the booming economy. For instance, only 25 percent who responded said that not having enough money for a down payment is a barrier to home buying, compared with 47 percent who listed it as an obstacle in surveys conducted between 1992 and 1997.

In general, those responding to the survey were optimistic about their personal financial situations, the current mortgage market and their prospects for buying a house.

Nearly half expected their family financial situations to get much better or somewhat better over the next year. And nearly two-thirds felt that now is a "somewhat to very good" time to buy a house.

While this degree of confidence is something less than the home-buying euphoria that was found in the 1993 and 1994 surveys, it is still very high.

Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed said they were thinking of moving in the next three years. Reflecting demographic changes in the market, a majority of single parents, African Americans and Latinos expect to move.

Traditionally mobile groups of younger people--those 18 to 24 years old--and renters also plan to move.

The survey also found that most Americans who rent--62 percent--do so because of circumstance, not choice. They rent because they cannot afford to own. But that is the lowest percentage recorded since Fannie Mae began the survey, an indication of the economy's strength and the rapid increase in homeownership since the early 1990s.

About 20 percent of current renters are saving money to buy a new house.

Americans remain suspicious of automated underwriting and credit scoring, which uses a computerized analysis of a borrower's credit history to more accurately predict the borrower's risk of failing to pay his or her mortgage.

Only 25 percent believe computerized credit scoring is better than having a mortgage application evaluated in the traditional way by a committee, with the rest believing that the traditional process is better because it enables humans to make the underwriting decision.

There is similar skepticism about obtaining mortgages over the Internet. Only 21 percent said they would probably or definitely finance a home purchase over the Net, compared with 20 percent three years ago. The Internet is still viewed primarily as a source of mortgage information, rather than as a useful place to apply for a loan.

Positive word of mouth continues to be the reason a consumer chooses a particular mortgage lender, followed by price and referral from real estate agents.

Among those who purchased a house recently, 21 percent accepted a referral from a real estate agent, and 22 percent acted on one from a friend or relative.

Consumers still prefer to meet their lenders or mortgage brokers in person. About 75 percent, including those refinancing mortgages, report that they met face to face with a loan officer during the process. This is significant, according to Fannie Mae, given how slowly consumers seem to be adapting to online mortgage origination.

Attitudes about bill-paying are unsettling for Fannie Mae officials, who have devoted considerable attention to the issue among low- and moderate-income home buyers--the majority of them coming from minority groups, for whom homeownership opportunities have been increasing over the decade.

Almost 31 percent of everyone surveyed said that being late in paying utility bills three times in the past year would be no problem at all in qualifying for a mortgage. Most African Americans (62 percent) and 46 percent of Latino respondents said such recurrent tardiness would be a problem.

But only 38 percent of all white respondents believed it would.

The question that follows is obvious. Do more minorities than whites believe it to be a problem because more minorities than whites are regularly penalized for it?

That's an issue Fannie Mae and lenders in general need to address. It's hard to build confidence in a system that remains mired in attitudes that the government and the lending industry believe have changed.