A new government-sponsored refinance program for underwater homeowners is just gearing up in Sonoma County. But loan officers told local real estate agents Tuesday that it can provide real help to those owners who qualify.

The program is the latest version of the federal Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP 2. Already a few real estate agents are sharing stories of clients who qualified to save several hundred dollars a month by refinancing to lower interest rates. Normally buyers with negative equity can’t refinance.

“It’s been definitely a game changer for a lot of our clients,” said Kevin Smart, a sales manager in Santa Rosa with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.

Smart was one of five loan officials speaking to a standing-room-only crowd at Tuesday’s breakfast meeting of the North Bay Association of Realtors in Santa Rosa.

While the officials didn’t predict how many homeowners might benefit locally, some touted it as a way to keep more homes from ending up as foreclosures or short sales.

Nationally the program might help between 1 million and 2 million customers, according to various estimates. However, some remain skeptical about HARP’s reach, and not just because recent government home loan programs have fallen far short of their goals. Questions also exist about the rules that mortgage insurance companies and lenders are adding on top of HARP’s own criteria.

LuAnn Scally, a sales manager for Bank of America, cautioned the real estate agents to help their clients understand that they might not qualify for the HARP refinancing. “They’ll call all excited,” she said, only to learn of the program’s restrictions.