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Plunge in refinancing hits mortgage applications

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The volume of mortgage applications fell last week despite a steady average rate on the commonly used 30-year fixed mortgage.

A large drop in refinances pushed the overall volume lower, but applications to purchase a home rose 3 percent from the previous week, on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). Purchase applications, however, are still down 14 percent from a year ago, when mortgage rates were a full percentage point lower.

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Refinance activity has been falling steadily since the rate rise early last summer. Applications to refinance fell 5 percent last week from the previous week and are now at their lowest level since the end of 2013. The average contract rate on the 30-year fixed conforming mortgage held steady last week at 4.56 percent.

Refinances are now just 51 percent of all mortgage applications, down from around 80 percent in 2012 and the first half of 2013. Refinances had surged on historically low rates, and banks experienced a boom in activity. With refinances now down from a year ago, banks have had to reduce and reallocate staff.

In a separate report this week, the MBA noted that credit has eased slightly, but only for larger "jumbo" loans. This is because so much of the home sales activity is on the higher end of the housing market today, as prices on the low end jumped dramatically over the past year, pricing some potential buyers out. The number of distressed homes for sale is also down, and investors are slowing their purchases. Higher end home sales still represent less than 10 percent of the overall housing market, but lenders want to capture whatever business they can.

"Consistent with past months, many lenders and investors are providing borrowers seeking higher loan amounts with a broader range of financing options by introducing new jumbo loan programs. Over the month, some lenders made a complete exit from wholesale lending operations, while other lenders moved to enter that space or expanded operations," said Mike Fratantoni, MBA's chief economist.

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Banks have not, however, loosened standards on smaller, conforming purchase loans in order to generate more business. In an odd reversal, jumbo loan rates are actually lower than those of conforming loans, due to high fees charged to lenders by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Jumbo loans are usually held on bank balance sheets or sold to a still small following of private investors.

By CNBC's Diana Olick. Follow her on Twitter @Diana_Olick.

Questions? Comments? Facebook.com/DianaOlickCNBC

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.