US mortgage activity remains stuck in neutral

Mortgage applications Bank of America
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A slight dip in interest rates was not enough to move the needle on mortgage applications last week.

Total volume was down just 0.2 percent for the week ending September 26th from the previous week on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA).

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Meanwhile, mortgage refinance volume fell 0.3 percent week-to-week, while applications to purchase a home didn't move at all. Purchase applications are now 11 percent lower than they were one year ago and are running about 30 percent lower than historical norms.

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"Although total purchase application volume was little changed, conventional purchase applications were at the highest level since July," said Michael Fratantoni, chief economist for the MBA. "On the other hand, government application volume fell for the week, with declines in purchase applications for FHA, VA, and Rural Housing Service loans."

While the average interest rate for government loans is slightly lower than those for conventional loans, FHA insurance premiums, as well as average credit scores, have increased and are sidelining some lower-income borrowers. The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) decreased to 4.33 percent from 4.39 percent for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans.

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Anemic mortgage application volumes are not surprising, given that signed contracts to buy existing homes fell in August and are down from a year ago, according to a report from the National Association of Realtors Monday. Realtors blame an exodus of investors from the housing market for the shortfall in sales.

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"With investors pulling back, the market is shifting more towards traditional and first-time buyers who rely on mortgages to purchase a home," wrote Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors in a release.

Mortgage rates moved slightly higher Tuesday and could be in for significant volatility at the end of this week, when the government releases its September employment report.

"That's neither good nor bad necessarily, but simply means the next pronounced move could be bigger than those seen over the last few weeks," wrote Matthew Graham of Mortgage News Daily.

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Nevertheless, the potential volatility has some loan originators suggesting potential borrowers lock in rates for anything that is within thirty days of closing.