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How rising mortgage rates may not matter for housing

Mortgage rates are now sitting solidly at the highest level in two years and could move even higher in the coming weeks.

Granted, December is not exactly the hottest season for the housing market — homes don't top the holiday gift list — but in January, all eyes move to the all-important spring season. This, coming after the Federal Reserve's expected rate increase on Wednesday.

Even before a Fed move, the average rate on the popular 30-year fixed mortgage shot up from record lows immediately after the presidential election, as investors piled into the stock market and sold out of the bond market [mortgage rates loosely follow the yield of the U.S. 10-year Treasury].

They then continued to move slowly higher, with the resulting move going from about 3.5 percent to now 4.25 percent. The last time rates moved by that much, in June 2013, home sales suffered and house price gains dropped by half.

This time around, however, there is great debate over whether rising rates really matter to housing. After all, increasing rates are indicative of a stronger economy, and a stronger economy favors housing.

A real estate agent exits a home for sale in Lancaster, Ohio, Jan. 9, 2015.
Ty Wright | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A real estate agent exits a home for sale in Lancaster, Ohio, Jan. 9, 2015.

"If interest rates are rising because the economy is growing more rapidly, then, typically, incomes also rise, and the rise in incomes offset the increase in the size of the mortgage payment, and housing goes just fine," said Doug Duncan, chief economist at Fannie Mae, in a recent interview with National Mortgage News.

Income growth is surely a driving factor for homeownership, but buying a home is the most emotional purchase a consumer can make. While a majority of current and prospective homeowners view the U.S. real estate market favorably, there is greater concern about how an increase in the Fed's benchmark interest rate, expected to be announced Wednesday, will hit housing affordability.

A report released Tuesday by Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, a real estate brokerage, found 76 percent of current homeowners and 79 percent of prospective homeowners cite increasing interest rates as a challenge impacting today's housing market; those are 16 and 8 percentage-point jumps, respectively, from the same time last year — just before the central bank raised its benchmark rate for the first time in nearly a decade.

The survey also showed an increased number of buyers and owners would feel anxious if rates were to rise further. Perception is everything in housing.

"Mortgage rates remain near historic lows, although it may not seem that way to recent, first-time buyers and those considering a home purchase," said Stephen Phillips, president of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices.

Real estate experts at Redfin, another real estate brokerage, predict that rates will not move that much higher in 2017, in fact no higher than 4.3 percent on the 30-year fixed. They also expect that access to credit will be easier:

"In 2016, large financial institutions such as Bank of America, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Quicken all introduced mortgages requiring as little as 1 percent to 3 percent down. We expect increases in the availability of low down payment mortgages to draw more millennial buyers into the housing market," said Nela Richardson, chief economist at Redfin.

Researchers at Zillow, a property listing and analytics company, surveyed consumer housing trends and found that buying a home is less tied to current mortgage rates and more closely linked to a consumer's financial well-being. Life events, such as job changes, promotions or change in the number of people in the household are the precipitating factors for a purchase.

"While those looking to buy a home are understandably concerned about the path of rates ahead, it's important to remember that borrowing costs remain exceptionally low by historical standards," said Erin Lantz, vice president of mortgages at Zillow.

"Rising rates may impact the location or size of the home they hope to purchase, but buyers that are fully committed to buying a home are unlikely to be swayed by the FOMC's [Federal Open Market Committee] decision to raise rates."

Still, affordability is weakening for those who want to buy, especially first-time buyers. The number of homes available to the average first-time buyer fell more than 12 percent compared with 2015, according to Trulia, another real estate listing site owned by Zillow.

Starter homes make up less than one-quarter of available listings nationwide, while premium homes make up half. In addition, average first-time buyer households will need to spend 39 percent of monthly income to buy a home, which is nearly a 2 percentage-point increase over 2015.


The greatest barrier to a robust spring housing market next year is not, however, higher mortgage rates — it is lack of supply.

Listings dropped throughout 2016 compared with 2015 and show no signs of improving. While there are some signs of home price gains easing, especially in California, one of the nation's largest and priciest housing markets, sales cannot increase if there aren't more homes to buy. Homebuilders are still operating at well below historical norms, and while they increase production little by little, it is not nearly enough. Sellers are also staying put.

"We've seen housing tenure increase the past few years, and turnover is low relative to historical averages," said Richardson of Redfin. "The typical homeowner stays in their home twice as long as they did 15 years ago. An increase in rates will serve to strengthen this trend towards longer tenure and lock homeowners into their low-rate mortgages."

This happened after the rate jump in 2013 as well, and conditions for sellers are worse today — first and foremost that it's harder to find an affordable trade-up home. There is also more incentive for homeowners to trade up but keep their current home to rent.

"For a homeowner who has the gift of a 3.5 percent (or lower) 30-year fixed rate, it may pay to keep their home as an investment property even if they do decide to trade up," added Richardson.