Weekly mortgage applications fall sharply over holidays

Real estate house for sale
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The holiday season is historically slow in the mortgage business, but this time around it was particularly quiet.

For the week ending January 2, 2015, total mortgage application volume was down 9.1 percent from two weeks earlier, on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). The reading included additional adjustments for both New Year's Day and Christmas Day, when banks were closed.

Applications to refinance existing mortgages decreased 12 percent from two weeks ago, according to the MBA, while mortgage applications to purchase a home fell 5 percent. December is the slowest month of the year in the housing market, but there is more weighing on sales than just a winter chill.

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"Beyond the seasonal slowdown, purchase application volume remains about 8 percent below last year's level, indicating that homebuyers are still cautious," said the MBA's chief economist Mike Fratantoni.

Marginal movement in pending home sales
Marginal movement in pending home sales   

They are still cautious despite falling mortgage interest rates. The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) decreased to 4.01 percent from 4.04 percent, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans, according to the MBA. That was just the beginning.

Plummeting bond yields this week pushed interest rates even lower. According to Mortgage News Daily (MND), the average rate on the 30-year fixed is now a full quarter point lower than the average rates available in the second half of December.

"Today is officially the first day we can say that rate sheets are at least as good as May 21st, 2013, the day before former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's congressional testimony unofficially kicked off the taper tantrum and sent mortgage rates quickly higher," wrote Matthew Graham of MND late Tuesday.

That restored the most widely available rate for the nation's best borrowers to 3.625 percent.

"One caveat is that this is somewhat dependent on the lender at the moment. Not all lenders improve their pricing in lock-step with the rest of the market, but if underlying MBS (mortgage-backed-securities) prices are in similar territory tomorrow [Wednesday], they'll follow suit," added Graham.