Former real estate agent Skip Petts is well aware of commission motives behind the housing search for would-be homeowners.

"When I was in real estate, I couldn't spend time looking for a home if the prospects weren't qualified," said Petts, who teaches homeownership classes for aspiring owners. "Agents make money when they sell you a home, but do they always have the customer's best interest at heart?"

The answer to that question, among other concerns of potential homeowners, is central to Petts's classes at the Neighborhood Finance Corp. in Des Moines. The nonprofit group is one of 245 local organizations around the country aimed at educating consumers about the ins and outs of owning a home.

The groups are independent entities under an umbrella national organization known as NeighborWorks America.

The goal of NeighborWorks is to serve as an education resource for hundreds of thousands of consumers who would otherwise be left to their own devices to learn about buying a home. Such lessons are often painfully learned through the school of hard knocks.

"We want to help people buy a home they can afford, and one they can keep," Petts said. "There aren't a lot of places to look for knowledge for the people we help."

NeighborWorks is partially funded by the U.S. government and has broadened well beyond its initial core mission of improved housing in distressed neighborhoods. More than 500,000 low- to moderate-income families have completed eight-week courses that cover homeownership, housing finance and repair of credit scores. More than 90,000 of those families have gone on to purchase homes, often in impoverished areas.

According to NeighborWorks chief executive Kenneth D. Wade, only 15 percent of current first-time home buyers receive adequate counseling and education.

Wade said these underserved populations have much to learn. Many must prop up credit scores or otherwise remain prone to lending at loan rates far beyond market rates for mortgages. Credit scores are typically used by lenders to gauge a borrower's ability to repay a loan. Credit scores range from a not-so-good 300 to a sterling 850. The magic number for reliable borrowers is 700. Wade said the credit scores of attendees climb an average of 50 points during classes.

The higher the credit score, the lower the loan interest rate. The kind of loan a consumer gets can make a big difference in what they end up paying for their home. For example, a house listed for $175,000 with a 5 percent down payment would cost a good credit risk borrower about $350,000 over the life of a 30-year loan at 5.5 percent. A borrower with a tarnished credit history would likely get a subprime loan at 8.5 percent and would pay nearly $500,000 over the same period.

Jesus Avila, 28, said Petts's class was important as he tried to climb out of the cycle of rent checks.

"I've wanted to get a home, but I was intimidated by it," said Avila, who has one class remaining on the home closing process. "I wanted to go about it the right way because I know there are a lot of predators [unsavory lenders] out there."

Many reputable lenders create competitive rate loan funds in targeted communities. Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. are national partners in addition to community banks in various cities.

The classes appear to make a difference for borrowers and lenders. NeighborWorks officials report that borrowers who have received adequate counseling prior to a home purchase are half the default risk as consumers who have not taken classes.

Wade said the number of local organizations certified by NeighborWorks to offer classes is sure to grow, and the organization expects to triple the number of course teachers and counselors in an effort to reach more than 2 million consumers by the end of 2007.