economic indicators

Housing seen shrugging off rate rise as banks loosen

BLOOMBERG FILE PHOTO/JACOB KEPLER
THE FEDERAL RESERVE may scale back its stimulus program as the housing market continues to improve, something seen as the first real test for the year-old recovery.
Posted 6/21/13

SAN FRANCISCO - Derrick Bulaich locked in a home- loan rate of 4.6 percent last week, prompted by a surge in borrowing costs as investors speculated the Federal Reserve would pull back from bond buying. Bulaich, who said he wishes he’d acted sooner, still plans to complete the purchase today of the four-bedroom Sacramento home because values in the city remain 42 percent below their 2005 peak despite recent gains.

“I was hoping rates would come back down and then I realized they weren’t going to,” said Bulaich, 24, who works for a bank. “Homes are still affordable, so that takes some of the sting” out of it.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said this week that the central bank may scale back its unprecedented stimulus program this year as the economy and housing improve, ending the era of record-low mortgage rates and marking the first test for the year-old housing recovery. While rising costs make purchasing real estate more expensive, the upshot for homebuyers is that banks will need to respond by improving credit availability that has been holding back the market for the past five years.

“If people believe house prices are going up, credit availability will evolve,” said Paul Willen, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “There is too much money to be made lending to homebuyers. Lenders will find a way.”

Rates jump

Mortgage rates in the U.S., after increasing at the fastest pace in a decade, have jumped after Bernanke confirmed on June 19 that the central bank is ready to slow its purchases amid signs of an improving economy and housing market. Wells Fargo & Co., the largest mortgage lender, increased the rate on a 30- year mortgage to 4.5 percent yesterday from 4.13 percent on June 18 and 3.88 percent last month.

The average rate for a 30-year fixed loan climbed to 3.93 percent earlier this week from 3.35 percent last month and the record low 3.31 percent reached in November, according to Freddie Mac.

The prospects of higher rates and the ending of the bond- buying program have sent stock markets plunging around the world. U.S. homebuilders fell 7.1 percent yesterday after a 3.3 percent drop the prior day, the biggest two-day plunge in more than a year. PulteGroup Inc., the largest homebuilder by market value, declined 9.1 percent yesterday.

Market surging

Higher borrowing costs so far haven’t held back the housing market, which is surging after the worst downturn since the 1930s. Sales of previously owned U.S. homes climbed more than forecast in May to the highest level since November 2009 and the median price jumped 15.4 percent from a year earlier to the highest in almost five years, the National Association of Realtors said yesterday.

Home prices are still 28 percent below the 2006 peak, and mortgage rates, still near historic lows, are down from 6.8 percent in 2006 and more than 10 percent in 1990. That’s spurring buyers like Bulaich, who is closing today on the $158,000, 1,300-square-foot (121-square-meter) stucco home.

“All these people are flooding out there to buy a house right when the rates are going up, but it’s still pretty affordable,” Bulaich said.

The rebound has helped rebuild household wealth, which jumped to a record in the first quarter, after falling in 2007 when the housing crash plunged the U.S. into the longest recession since the 1930s.

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