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For the first time this year, mortgage rates dropped, but not enough to spur refinances — which took a sharp dive.
Total mortgage application volume fell 1.1 percent last week from the previous week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association's seasonally adjusted report. Volume was 5 percent lower than one year ago.
Refinances were behind the fall entirely. Volume fell 5 percent for the week and was nearly 19 percent lower than a year ago, when mortgage rates were lower. Interest rates began to rise at the start of 2018 and did not let up until last week, but today's borrowers are so used to record-low rates that any move higher takes away the benefit from a refinance.
The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($453,100 or less) decreased to 4.68 percent from 4.69 percent, with points increasing to 0.46 from 0.45 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio loans.
"Treasury rates declined slightly on average last week, as a mixed bag of economic news and geopolitical concerns made investors more cautious overall," said Joel Kan, an MBA economist. "A significant driver of the decline was retail sales data showing less than expected spending by U.S. households for the third month."
The refinance share of mortgage applications fell to just 38.5 percent, the lowest since September 2008.
Mortgage applications to purchase a home increased 1 percent for the week and were 6 percent higher than a year ago. Purchase volume is less reactive to weekly interest rate moves and more dictated by a very tight and increasingly expensive spring market. The supply of homes for sale is at a critical low, and there is no sign of improvement yet.
"Although realtor.com data shows 422,000 homes hit the market in February, it's not enough to satiate demand from buyers, particularly in the under $200,000 price tier," said Danielle Hale, chief economist at realtor.com.
Affordability is weakening across the nation due to the combination of short supply, high demand and rising interest rates. And the respite for interest rates was short lived. They began rising again this week in advance of the Federal Reserve's expected rate hike Wednesday.
While the bond markets already expect the Fed's move, the announcement is one of only four per year when members update their outlook.
"This has become the market's way to stay up to speed on a general rate hike outlook," said Matthew Graham, chief operating officer at Mortgage News Daily. "The catch is that there's no way to know how much of a change the market currently expects. The takeaway is that rates stand a higher chance to experience a bigger move, for better or worse."