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Mortgage applications point to more buyers

Mortgage applications Bank of America
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Despite recent data showing weak home sales for January, a new report shows home buyers may edge back into the market in March.

Mortgage applications to purchase a home rose 5 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis for the week ending February 20th from the previous week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). They are still 2 percent lower than the same week a year ago. The survey includes an adjustment for the President's Day holiday.

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This increase came despite slightly higher mortgage interest rates. The same was not true for refinance applications. They fell 8 percent from the previous week, driving total mortgage application volume down 3.5 percent. Refinance volume has been falling steadily for the past several weeks, as rates rose to their highest level since the beginning of 2015.

"Refinance application volume fell to its lowest level this year as mortgage rates inched towards 4 percent. The one exception to this trend was VA refinance volume, which increased 27 percent last week, as certain lenders refocused on VA production. The VA share of total applications increased to 9.6 percent from 8 percent the week prior as a result," said Mike Fratantoni, chief economist for the MBA.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) increased to 3.99 percent from 3.93 percent, with points decreasing to 0.33 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans.

Rates have been rising recently in part due to better news from overseas markets, as well as to a strong January employment report in the U.S. There was concern that Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen would raise interest rates faster than she had previously indicated – a negative for the bond market, which mortgage rates loosely follow.

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In testimony to Congress Tuesday, she gave no sign of that, and bond markets responded accordingly.

"While this wasn't the only ball in play, it was the main motivation for bond markets returning to stronger levels. MBS (the mortgage-backed-securities that most directly influence rates) came along for the ride and almost every lender repriced rate sheets at least once," wrote Matthew Graham of Mortgage News Daily.

"By the end of the day, we are as close as we have been to 3.75 percent being the dominant top-tier rate quote for conventional 30-year loans as we have been in nearly 2 weeks. It's arguably taking the lead from 3.875 percent at current levels," he said.

Lower rates could reinvigorate refinances, but mortgage rates do not seem to be the primary driver for home buyers. Rising home prices and very tight inventory of homes for sale have been major barriers to entry for first-time and move-up buyers alike. A report Tuesday showed price gains accelerating again after a year of easing. Spring generally brings more sellers to the market, but so far Realtors are not seeing enough new listings at affordable prices to meet the demand.

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