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FHA premium drop ignites mortgage refinances, but applications overall are flat

The lowest mortgage rates in a month did little to drive new loan applications last week.

Total mortgage application volume was basically flat, rising 0.8 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis compared with the previous week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Applications, however, were 14 percent lower from one year ago, a far more telling indication of the state of the market. Both refinances and home sales have pulled back as rates rise and uncertainty over the new administration takes a bite out of consumer confidence in housing.

Applications to refinance a home loan have been falling dramatically since the presidential election, when interest rates took off. Last week was different. Refinance volume rose 7 percent for the week, clearly spurred by the announcement from outgoing HUD Secretary Julian Castro that the FHA would lower its annual insurance premium by 25 basis points. The FHA share of total applications increased to 13.1 percent from 11.7 percent during the prior week.

A sales manager gives a tour of a model home to a prospective buyer in Hesperia, California.
Irfan Khan | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
A sales manager gives a tour of a model home to a prospective buyer in Hesperia, California.

"Refi volume is still down sharply from the end of last year, remaining 13 percent below the level from four weeks ago," said Mike Fratantoni, MBA chief economist.

Homebuyers were not as impressed by the FHA move. Mortgage applications to purchase a home fell 5 percent for the week and are now down 1 percent from a year ago. Mortgage rates fell back slightly, but are still higher than they were one year ago.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($424,000 or less) decreased to 4.27 percent, from 4.32 percent, with points decreasing to 0.39 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio loans.

Mortgage rates moved slightly lower again Tuesday, but the prevailing opinion remains that they will move higher again, once the Trump administration is in place. Homebuyers are already facing higher home prices and tight supply of homes for sale. If rates continue to rise, they may affect sellers more than buyers.


"For sellers, it's a whole different ball of wax, especially if they bought at the bottom of the market in 2012, were able to refi into a really low, maybe even a 15 year mortgage rate that's under 3 percent, then their trade-offs are a lot different," said Nela Richardson, chief economist at Redfin. "They can rent that property, they can Airbnb that property, they can renovate that property. Even if they choose to move on, they can still keep that property as a really strong investment. That's what happened two years ago when rates went up after being very low."

If that happens, it will only deepen the housing shortage. Homebuilders are not ramping up production to meet the new demand, and what they are building is not the entry level stock that the market so desperately needs.