DEAR BOB: Last October, we listed our house for sale for six months with a realty agent who was a longtime friend. She obtained a decent purchase offer within about two weeks. Our reason for selling is divorce, and in the process of finding a buyer our agent told people about the divorce. Now everyone in our small suburb knows the details, which we thought she would keep confidential.

The buyer turned out to be a flake. He couldn't get a mortgage because of credit problems and insufficient provable income. In December, we told our agent to take the house off the market for the holidays. She got mad at us because we had signed a six-month listing. Do we have to go back to her after we paint and fix up the house before putting it back on the market?--David G.

DEAR DAVID: You made two serious mistakes when listing your house for sale. The first was to sign a long-term listing without an unconditional cancellation clause. If agents require that long a listing, I think it shows they don't have confidence in their sales plans and abilities.

I recommend 90-day listings, which give successful agents plenty of time to market a house. If it is unsold after 90 days, but the agent is doing a good job, you can always renew.

The second mistake was to list with a friend who couldn't be trusted to look out for your best interests. The fact that you are getting a divorce has nothing to do with your home's market value or desirability for buyers.

That realty agent friend should have checked the buyer's qualifications, such as by obtaining a credit report that would have revealed the bad credit problem. If you had known that fact, you might not have accepted the purchase offer and tied up the sale of your house.

Legally, if the six-month listing is still in effect when you finish fixing up your house for sale, you are probably obligated to let that agent continue working on the sale. But you should let her know you were not happy about her revealing confidential information and for not checking that buyer's qualifications. If she releases you from the listing, be sure to interview at least three successful realty agents before selecting the best agent for your listing.

DEAR BOB: We have had so much trouble with our mortgage lender that we've decided to refinance to pay off our loan. Our lender is overcharging us for our escrow account and failed to pay our real estate taxes on time. Several times our lender claimed our monthly payment was late even though we always mail it on the first of each month.

What is the easiest and best way to shop for a mortgage? Should we go to an Internet lender? Last time we got our loan through a local mortgage broker. Also, are we required to have an escrow account?--Victor G.

DEAR VICTOR: Congratulations on deciding to get rid of your lender. Unless you will be getting a new VA, FHA or private mortgage insurance home loan, you are not required to have an escrow account.

I suggest shopping among two local mortgage brokers, who represent many lenders; two local banks or S&Ls; and two Internet lenders to compare loan terms and services. At the recent National Association of Realtors convention in Orlando, a speaker from Countrywide, one of the nation's largest lenders, said they get many borrowers from their Internet Web site, but, surprisingly, most of those prospects end up getting their loans through a local Countrywide office.

The reason I share this information is that there are many Internet home loan Web sites, but few mortgages are actually originated there. However, the Internet is a great place to start your loan shopping. Also, ask friends and business associates who recently obtained home loans for their recommendations. However, make a loan application only if you want the mortgage offered because too many credit inquiries could hurt your credit score.

DEAR BOB: We are in the market for a new house. At the model homes we visited, the builders' salespeople quote prices but refuse to negotiate. Is this customary, or should we expect to haggle over price, as we did when we bought an older home several years ago?--Maria L.

DEAR MARIA: Builders of new houses rarely will negotiate on price unless sales are slow. When a builder cuts prices, it affects appraisals on subsequent sales in that subdivision. Instead, especially when business is slow, home builders will haggle over upgrades and extras, such as better appliances and carpeting or extra landscaping.

DEAR BOB: I plan to sell my house and buy a condominium. The law requires a termite inspection before a home sale. I suspect a few termites are in my house. Is it acceptable to secure repair estimates from more than one termite exterminator so I have a choice as to price?--Bill P.

DEAR BILL: Termite inspections are customary in many areas, though not required by law, and are included in most standard home-sale contracts. But if you wanted to sell your house "as is" without a termite inspection, you could change the contract to do so. I recently did that with a rental house. However, most buyers in termite-prone areas won't buy without a professional termite or pest-control inspection and clearance.

The best agents recommend that their sellers obtain a termite inspection clearance before putting their houses on the market. That's what you should do. After you get an inspection report, then obtain bids to repair the damage and/or exterminate any termites. When you are ready to list the house for sale, you will then have a termite inspection clearance to show to prospective buyers. Equally important, you will have "shopped" for the best repair or extermination price without being under time pressure.

DEAR BOB: I made an offer to buy a house more than two weeks ago, but I have not received a denial or a counteroffer. Is there a real estate law or rule stating the bank must or should respond within a specified time after I made my offer?

--Calvin B.

DEAR CALVIN: I'm shocked. If you made your purchase offer through a real estate agent, that agent should be certain you receive a quick response within a day or two, unless it is a "bid opening" situation where all offers are opened at a specific time. But even with a bid opening situation, you should have received a response by now.

You asked if the bank must or should respond within a specified time. If a bank is selling the property, such as in a foreclosure, trust sale or perhaps a probate property, then added layers of bank bureaucracy may be involved. Start making phone calls. Maybe the right person didn't receive your offer. Perhaps it was "lost."

No laws or ethics rule how soon a buyer should receive a response to an offer. However, good business practices and common courtesy require fast response. Make some phone calls to learn why you haven't heard any response.

DEAR BOB: Last August my mother made the final payment on her home mortgage. Since this was her original 30-year mortgage, it had been sold and the loan servicing was transferred many times. She now pays her property taxes and fire insurance premiums directly, as her escrow impound account was closed when the mortgage was paid off.

But she's having trouble getting the deed to her house. Several times, she contacted the firm to which she made her mortgage payments. The firm claims "the investor hasn't signed the release forms needed to process the reconveyance deed." This was in November. She has followed up several times and gets the same answer. Is this length of time normal or should she take additional steps?--Kelly K.

DEAR KELLY: Unfortunately, your mother's problem occurs frequently. Mortgage lenders have no financial incentive to clear the title quickly after the loan is paid in full. Waiting more than five months is outrageous.

You didn't say in which state your mother's house is located. A few states have laws requiring prompt recording of a satisfaction of mortgage or a deed of reconveyance. However, there is no effective enforcement or financial penalty for the lenders.

Your mother is doing an excellent job of frequent follow-up, but it should not take five months to clear her title. It's time for her--or you--to get tough with that lazy loan servicer.

The next time your mother phones the loan servicer, she should ask for the name, address and phone number of the "investor" who owned her mortgage. She is entitled to that information. If public relations-conscious Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, the nation's largest mortgage lenders, owned her mortgage, a phone call or letter to the chairman and chief executive will bring prompt results.

Readers with questions should write Robert J. Bruss at P.O. Box 280038, San Francisco, Calif. 94128. {copy} 2000, Tribune Media Services Inc.