Thousands of Utahns are facing the prospect of mortgage rates rising from their lowest levels in decades after the Federal Reserve said the central bank may trim its program to help the economy by keeping interest rates low.
The average rate for 30-year mortgages jumped two weeks ago to the highest level since August 2011 after Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke, raising the possibility that house shoppers who hadn’t locked in all-time low rates had missed the party.
"It’s very frustrating. A year ago, or even a month ago, I could have walked into a home that is more custom, has more upgrades, more square footage and a larger yard," said Misty Adinaro, 36, who has been hunting for a bigger house for more than a year.
Over the past 40 years, fixed-rate 30-year loans have averaged close to 9 percent. But thanks to the Fed’s bond-buying, mortgages have been comfortably under 5 percent since 2009, and until June were below 4 percent, according to Freddie Mac. The sudden leap from 3.93 percent to 4.46 percent in late June raised the specter that home buyers would have to choose between a bigger mortgage than they budgeted, settle for something less desirable — or back away from the market altogether.
Mortgage rates moved down slightly last week. But the improvement was hard to notice, and analysts were divided over where rates are really headed. What they do agree is that buyers shouldn’t drop out of the housing market. Even if they continue to rise, loan rates should remain a bargain for some time. On Thursday, the average rate rose to 4.51 percent, a two-year high.
"My suspicion is that there will be volatility in mortgage rates, but that there will be a slight to medium increase in the trend line over the next 12 months," said Randy Shumway, a Zions Bank economic adviser.
Other experts aren’t as certain mortgages will creep higher. Most think rates are more likely to stabilize, according to Bankrate.com.
"We are still in a slow-growth economy, with high unemployment and low inflation. In other words, the Fed is unlikely to dial back the stimulus as soon as markets have feared," said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at the personal finance web site.
Regardless of what happens, Adinaro was rattled by the recent rise. She is hunting for a home priced between $260,000 and $320,000 in the south end of Salt Lake Valley. But the rate bump that Bernanke sparked last month has added as much as $99 more a month to Adinaro’s potential monthly principle and interest payment. That’s prompted her to reconsider her plans.
"I think rates will continue to climb for the next several months," Adinaro, a respiratory therapy supervisor, said. "The emotional side of it makes you want to speed things up and settle for things you might not want. But I’ll wait it out. If it’s not, then I’ll keep looking."
Robert and Lanie Meyers had been house-hunting casually for about a year. Three months ago, when rates for a 30-year mortgage hovered around 3.5 percent, the Meyers decided it was time to get serious. One reason was because they have two young children and the two-bedroom basement apartment had become too cramped. More important, though, was their fear that interest rates and home prices were bound to rise.
"We knew that interest rates were low and we wanted to get into a home before the rates went up, and prices are also going up, so we wanted to buy a home before prices got too high," said Robert Meyers, 30, a mechanical engineer.
In April, when the Meyers started looking in earnest, they were told rates stood at 3.625 percent, a level that worked comfortably with their $250,000 price target. Late last month, after their offer for a three-bedroom house in Salt Lake City’s Highland Park neighborhood was accepted, the Meyers locked in a rate that was more than a percentage point than they expected their loan would carry. Robert Meyers is disappointed that their principle and interest payment will be more than $100 a month higher, but he is philosophical.
The 4.75 percent rate he will pay is still low by historical standards, he said, recalling that his mother told him recently that in 1987, her adjustable mortgage reset from a low introductory rate to 13 percent.
"I didn’t expect rates to go up as soon as they did, or as quickly. But I knew it was going to happen at some point," Meyers said.
The sudden rise of mortgage rates couldn’t come at a worse time. In May, the median price of a home sold in Salt Lake County was $230,000, up 15 percent from the same month last year. The average time on the market before a house sold was just 16 days, and the number of homes changing owners jumped to 1,528 from 1,279 in May 2012, according to the Salt Lake Board of Realtors.
"That’s phenomenal. The 1,500 range was where we were in 2005-2006, when we had the big run-up in sales," board spokesman David Anderton said.
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