WASHINGTON – Jan. 5, 2009 – Rates on 30-year mortgages fell to a record low for the third straight week and borrowers took advantage of the drop, sending new applications soaring.
With the Federal Reserve on the verge of pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the devastated U.S. housing market, mortgage rates have plunged to the lowest level since Freddie Mac started tracking the data in April 1971.
Low rates are a great opportunity for borrowers with solid credit and plenty of equity in their homes. But those in danger of foreclosure are still sidelined, and defaults are expected to keep rising in the coming months.
Freddie Mac reported Wednesday that average rates on 30-year fixed mortgages dropped to 5.1 percent this week, down from the previous record of 5.14 percent set last week. It was the ninth straight weekly drop. The survey was released a day early due to the New Year’s holiday.
Mortgage rates have plunged by about 1.3 percentage points since late October, Freddie Mac said. For a borrower taking out a $200,000 loan, that means a savings of more than $170 in monthly payments, according to Frank Nothaft, the mortgage finance company’s chief economist.
Meanwhile, mortgage applications last week remained at the highest level in more than five years, the Mortgage Bankers Association said.
The trade group’s weekly application index was essentially unchanged for the week ending Dec. 26. Applications surged earlier this month to the highest level since July 2003, when refinancing activity boomed at the peak of the housing market.
More than 80 percent of applications came from borrowers looking to refinance at more affordable rates, the trade group said.
Interest rates have plunged since the Federal Reserve pledged last month to buy up mortgage-backed securities in an effort to bolster the long-suffering housing market. The Fed, starting early next month, will buy up to $500 billion in securities guaranteed by the government-controlled home loan giants Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, a federal agency.
“It’s a huge number,” said Derek Chen, an analyst at Barclays Capital, who noted that mortgage rates are still high when compared with yields on long-term Treasury debt.
With the Fed and Treasury Department buying up a significant portion of the new mortgage securities issued by Fannie and Freddie next year, that gap, or spread, could narrow.
If that happens, mortgage rates could fall further, possibly as low as 4.5 percent, Chen said.
The average rate on a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage dropped to 4.83 percent, the lowest point since March 2004. That rate was 4.91 percent last week, Freddie Mac said.
Rates on five-year, adjustable-rate mortgages rose to 5.57 percent, compared with 5.49 percent last week. Rates on one-year, adjustable-rate mortgages fell to 4.85 percent, from 4.95 percent last week.
The rates do not include add-on fees known as points. The nationwide fee for 30-year, 15-year mortgages and five-year adjustable rate mortgages averaged 0.7 point last week, compared with 0.5 point for one-year adjustable-rate mortgages.
Meanwhile, home prices dropped by the sharpest annual rate on record in October and there are no signs the housing pain is over.
The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city housing index, released Tuesday, fell by a record 18 percent from October last year, the largest drop since its inception in 2000. The 10-city index tumbled 19.1 percent, its biggest decline in its 21-year history. Prices are at levels not seen since March 2004.