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US Home Loan Applications Jump as Rates Fall

Applications for U.S. home mortgages jumped for a third consecutive week as plunging interest rates encouraged more homeowners to seek refinancings, an industry group said on Wednesday.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted index of refinancing applications surged 16.9 percent in the week ending Jan. 18 to 4,178.2, the highest level since March 2004. The activity was up 92 percent since the beginning of November and more than offset a 4.6 percent fall last week in the index for home purchase applications to 439.9, it said.

Refinancings accounted for two-thirds of all applications.

The MBA's market composite index, a measure of overall mortgage loan application volume, rose last week by 8.3 percent to 981.5.

The rise followed a drop in the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate to 5.49 percent last week from 5.62 percent in the previous week and 6.18 percent in mid-December, the trade group said.

"It is clear that borrowers are responding to the 40-80 basis point drop in rates we have seen since Nov. 2 across" mortgage products, Jay Brinkmann, vice president of research and economics at the MBA, said in a statement.

Tighter lending conditions make it hard to estimate how many of the applications will be successful, he said. Lenders have pulled back on credit to borrowers of all credit histories after soaring delinquencies on subprime loans created billions of dollars in losses.

Mortgage rates have declined amid signs the housing downturn and less consumer spending will push the economy into recession, cooling the growth that fuels faster inflation. The Federal Reserve on Tuesday surprised markets with a 0.75 percentage point cut in its target interest rate, citing a weakening economic outlook, less availability of credit and softening labor markets.

The 10-year Treasury yield that roughly guides long-term mortgage rates declined by more than 0.2 percentage point since the MBA survey was conducted, suggesting 30-year mortgage rates are below levels measured on Friday.

Rates on short-term loans also fell. The average rate on a one-year adjustable mortgage declined to 5.51 percent last week from 5.77 percent in the prior period, the MBA said.

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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.