Real Estate

Weekly mortgage applications drop amid highest rates of 2015

A sign offering mortgage help at a Bank of America branch, New York City.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

A sharp jump in mortgage rates last Friday took its toll on home lending, leaving mostly high-end home buyers on the playing field.

Total mortgage application volume fell 1.3 percent week-to-week on a seasonally adjusted basis for the week ending March 6th, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). The fall was driven by a 3 percent drop in applications to refinance. Refinance volume is now at its lowest level since January and accounts for just 60 percent of all applications. Refinances had seen as much as an 80 percent share of all applications in recent years, as rates dipped and home buying stalled.

Sad, not surprising: People don't know their mortgage rate
Sad, not surprising: People don't know their mortgage rate

Mortgage applications to purchase a home rose two percent for the week and are two percent higher than a year ago. The slight increase, however, was largely due to higher-end home buyers. The average purchase loan size last week soared to $294,900, the highest level ever recorded on the MBA survey. The median price of a U.S. home sold in January was $199,600, according to the National Association of Realtors.

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"The record high average loan size indicates that the strength of the market remains at the high end. We have not yet seen an influx of first-time homebuyers," noted Michael Fratantoni, chief economist for the MBA.

A stronger-than-expected February employment report last Friday pushed interest rates higher, as investors now expect the Federal Reserve to increase its lending rate by mid-year. The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) increased to 4.01 percent, the highest level since the week ending January 2, 2015, from 3.96 percent, with points increasing to 0.39 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans, according to the MBA.

Interest rates edged back a bit Tuesday, as the stock market sold off, but 4 percent may be the new normal now for 30-year fixed rate loans, with the expectation that they would move higher later this year. While these moves may seem small, they can take away significant purchasing power, especially for lower income borrowers using small down payments. With home price gains accelerating, and still tight supply of homes for sale, home buyers are especially sensitive to every potential penny lost or gained.