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How Does the Fed Help My House, My Mortgage?

Lane Oatey | Getty Images

For those of you who expected to wake up to a 30-year fixed rate mortgage below 3 percent, you may as well go back to sleep.

Yes, rates moved down, 0.125 percent, according to several sources, but that was not as low as some had predicted. Remember, we hit the low of 3.49 percent in July, but then we jumped back into the mid to high threes. (Read More: Fed Pulls Trigger, to Buy Mortgages in Effort to Lower Rates.)

“Short term, people who are thinking about moving really need to lock in,” says Craig Strent of Maryland-based Apex Home Loans. He is concerned that the strong consumer sentiment number that came in today could cause the Federal Reserve to pull back on its buying in the future. “When this thing turns, it’s going to be fast. Just pulling back a little sends a message,” adds Strent.

But others argue that the housing market is still on such shaky ground that that’s unlikely to happen. Mortgage applications to purchase a home have declined five of the last six months, according to Diane Swonk of Mesirow Financial.

“I think that this will be a trillion dollar commitment from the Fed,” said Swonk on CNBC’s "Squawk on the Street." “Home values appreciating, that’s something very important in this economy getting more legs and moving forward more rapidly.” (You can watch the interview here.)

So say mortgage rates could dip lower than the latest record, perhaps to around 3.25 percent. How does that help me? Does it boost my home price? (Read More: Will Fed's Mortgage Buying Juice the Housing Recovery?)

On the one hand, lower mortgage rates give potential buyers more purchasing power. “A 0.125 percent drop in rates adds 1.5 percent to your maximum purchase price (given all the other fees),” according to Dan Green at Waterstone Mortgage. “Assuming a mortgage payment of $1500, that’s the difference between $404,800 and $411,000-ish.” So that is how much more house you can buy. If people can buy more house, then perhaps home prices will rise.

But as we’ve noted so many times before, the great low rate doesn’t mean anything if you can’t qualify, if you don’t have the down payment or credit scores to get it.

“Instead, the underlying improvement in housing demand is still very reliant on cash buyers and investors,” notes Paul Diggle of Capital Economics, who does not believe mortgage rates will fall dramatically. “Admittedly, low bond yields and savings rates more generally are probably playing a part in the strength of investor demand for housing.”

Lower rates could cause a boost in refinances, but so many have already refied at record low rates that it would take a pretty large drop to lure more in, given the fees and hassle involved. And of course negative equity keeps millions of potential refinancers out of the game. The government’s refinance program for underwater borrowers (HARP) has helped over half a million borrowers get lower rates since the beginning of this year, but unless you have a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac backed loan, you’re not eligible.

There is a push by Democrats in Congress to expand the government’s refi program, and lower mortgage rates could help more Republicans come on board, but that is unlikely to happen before election day. (Read More: Wealthiest Counties Rake In Government-Backed Mortgages)

“To ensure as many voters as possible can benefit from this, we believe there will be another push to enact HARP expansion legislation during the lame duck session that will start after the election,” says Jaret Seiberg of Guggenheim Partners. “Lower mortgage rates only matter if people can refinance and plow that extra cash into the economy. Given that as many as a quarter of borrowers may be underwater, the HARP is the way to translate the Federal Reserve’s effort into economic stimulus.”

It is hard to say now just how low rates will go and just who will be able to benefit from lower mortgage rates. In today’s tricky housing recovery, so dependent on investors and so sensitive to a still-swollen pipeline of foreclosed properties and delinquent loans, mortgage rates are just one piece of the recovery puzzle.

Sector Watch - Nation's Biggest Mortgage Lenders:

  • Wells Fargo
  • JPM Chase
  • Bank of America
  • Citi
  • U.S. Bancorp

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @Diana_Olick

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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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