Homebuyers Get a Break as Mortgage Rates Hit 7-Month Low

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Mortgage rates fell to their lowest level in seven months this past week, providing a glimmer of hope for homebuyers who have been sidelined by high borrowing costs.

The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage dropped to 6.60% according to Freddie Mac, down from a recent peak of nearly 8% in October 2023. While still high historically, the retreat back below 7% could draw more prospective homebuyers back into the market.

The dip in rates comes as the housing market is showing early signs of a potential turnaround after a dismal 2023. Home sales plunged nearly 18% last year as surging mortgage rates and stubbornly high prices made purchases unaffordable for many.

But January has seen some positive signals emerge. More homes are coming up for sale as sellers who waited out 2023 finally list their properties. Real estate brokerage Redfin reported a 9% annual increase in inventory in January, the first year-over-year gain since 2019.

At the same time, buyer demand is also perking back up with the improvement in affordability. Mortgage applications jumped 10% last week compared to the prior week according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. While purchase apps remain below year-ago levels, the turnaround suggests buyers are returning.

“If rates continue to ease, MBA is cautiously optimistic that home purchases will pick up in the coming months,” said Joel Kan, MBA’s Vice President of economic and industry forecasting.

The increase in supply and demand has some experts predicting the market may be primed for a rebound in the spring home shopping season. But whether the inventory can satisfy purchaser interest remains uncertain.

“As purchase demand continues to thaw, it will put more pressure on already depleted inventory for sale,” noted Freddie Mac Chief Economist Sam Khater.

Homebuilders have pulled back sharply on new construction as sales slowed over the past year. And many current owners are still hesitant to sell with mortgage rates on their existing homes likely much lower than what they could get today. That leaves the total number of homes available for sale still historically lean.

Nonetheless, agents are reporting more bidding wars again for the limited inventory available in some markets. While not at the frenzied pace of 2022, competition for the right homes is heating up. Experts say interested buyers may want to start making offers now before the selection gets picked over.

“I’m advising house hunters to start making offers now because the market feels pretty balanced,” said Heather Mahmood-Corley, a Redfin agent. “With activity picking up, I think prices will rise and bidding wars will become more common.”

The driver of the downturn in rates since late last year has been an overall cooling of inflation pressures. The Federal Reserve pushed the 30-year fixed mortgage above 7% for the first time in over 20 years with its aggressive interest rate hikes aimed at taming inflation.

But evidence is mounting that the Fed’s policy actions are having the desired effect. Consumer price increases have steadily moderated from 40-year highs last summer. The slower inflation has allowed the central bank to reduce the size of its rate hikes.

Markets now expect the Fed to lift its benchmark rate 0.25 percentage points at its next meeting, a smaller move compared to the 0.50 and 0.75 point hikes seen last year. The slower pace of increases has taken pressure off mortgage rates.

However, the Fed reiterated it plans to keep rates elevated for some time to ensure inflation continues easing. Most experts do not foresee the central bank cutting interest rates until 2024 at the earliest. That means mortgage rates likely won’t fall back to the ultra-low levels seen during the pandemic for years.

But for homebuyers who can manage the higher rates, the recent pullback provides some savings on monthly payments. On a $300,000 loan, the current average 30-year rate would mean about $140 less in the monthly mortgage bill versus the fall peak above 8%.

While housing affordability remains strained by historical standards, some buyers are jumping in now before rates potentially move higher again. People relocating or needing more space are finding ways to cope with the increased costs.

With some forecasts calling for home prices to edge lower in 2024, this year could provide an opportunity for buyers to get in after sitting out 2023’s rate surge. It may be a narrow window however. If demand accelerates faster than supply, the competition and price gains could return quickly.


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