While many homeowners rushed to refinance mortgages with lower interest rates this winter, others were left out in the cold, casualties of the soft real estate market.

Once again, the big losers were those who bought when home prices peaked in the late '80s. Not only are they unable to sell now without taking a substantial loss, but they've been denied a chance to become more financially comfortable where they are.Most banks won't lend out any more than 80 percent to 90 percent of the current appraised value of a home, so when values decline, that makes less money available for refinancing.

"They're in a catch-22 right now: They can't sell because they won't make their money back and they may not be able to refinance . . . because they may not qualify," said John Hickey, senior mortgage underwriter for First Trade Union Savings Bank of Boston, an area hard hit by slumping housing prices.

Hickey and his colleagues have seen growing evidence of this problem nationwide since the start of the year, as more homeowners sought to refinance their old loans to take advantage of a drop in fixed mortgage rates into single-digit territory. The national average for conventional 30-year fixed-rate mortgages fell below 9.5 percent last month, a 4-year low, although rates have risen slightly since then.

By refinancing, homeowners can cut their monthly house payments or rid themselves of fickle adjustable rate mortgages, which reflect prevailing market interest rates. In some cases, homeowners with low mortgages can even refinance beyond their balance and use the excess for other expenses, a procedure known as "cashing out."