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US mortgage volume ekes out gain on tiny drop in rates

Ryan McVay | Photodisc | Getty Images

While mortgage rates have teetered within a tight range, even a slight drop in interest rates was enough to boost mortgage applications, which are still coming in at an anemic pace.

Total application volume increased 2.8 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis from one week earlier, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). Refinances rose 3 percent week-to-week, but were off 25 percent from a year ago, when mortgage rates were higher. The seasonally adjusted Purchase Index also increased 3 percent on week.

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"The refinance index reached its highest level in more than two months," said Michael Fratantoni, chief economist for the MBA. "Purchase volume continues to be weak despite the small increase, and was 11 percent below this time last year."

Mortgage rates fell toward the end of last week as turmoil overseas fueled the bond market. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell, and mortgage rates loosely follow that yield. Mortgage rates rose slightly after that. For the week, the average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) decreased to 4.28 percent from 4.29 percent.

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Interest rates had been expected to move higher by now, but instead seem stuck. Trouble overseas is largely to blame, and yet mortgage rates, so far at least, refuse to go below the psychologically significant 4 percent level. That has to do with other factors for lenders beyond just the bond markets. Matthew Graham of Mortgage News Daily offers this explanation:

"Europe is a wet blanket on domestic interest rates. The proportions may not be epic, but they've been utterly persistent…But the good news is that until something changes about the situation in Europe, it would be very hard for rates to embark on any significant move higher."

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Graham says it's possible for rates to get back into the high 3's, if a Treasury rally holds ground, but it usually doesn't and didn't this week. Just the possibility of lower rates, however, is a lot more than anyone might have hoped for nine months ago, when the expectation was that rates would cross 5 percent, not 4.

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.

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