Real Estate

Mortgage demand drops as interest rates hit a three-month high

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Key Points
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages increased to 2.96% from 2.92%.
  • Refinance demand, which is most sensitive to weekly rate fluctuations, fell 4% last week but were 46% higher than a year ago.
  • Mortgage applications to purchase a home fell 5% for the week but were still 17% higher year over year.
An 'Open House' sign is displayed in the front yard of a home for sale in Columbus, Ohio.
Ty Wright | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Mortgage interest rates have increased in four of the first six weeks of 2021, putting a chill on mortgage demand.

Overall mortgage application volume fell 4.1% last week compared with the previous week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association's seasonally adjusted index.

The move down came as the average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances of up to $548,250 increased to 2.96% from 2.92%, for loans with a 20% down payment. The rate was 76 basis points higher a year ago.

Refinance demand, which is most sensitive to weekly rate fluctuations, fell 4% for the week but were 46% higher than a year ago. That annual comparison had been over 100% at the start of this year but has been shrinking.

"Despite some weekly volatility, Treasury rates have been driven higher by expectations of faster economic growth as the Covid-19 vaccine rollout continues," said Joel Kan, the MBA's associate vice president of economic and industry forecasting.

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The refinance share of mortgage activity decreased to 70.2% of total applications from 71.4% the previous week, the lowest level in three months.

Homebuyers are also pulling back, but less because of rising mortgage rates and more because of low supply and overheating home prices. Mortgage applications to purchase a home fell 5% for the week but were still 17% higher year over year.

"Purchase applications cooled the first week of February, but homebuyers are still very active," Kan said. "The average purchase loan size continued to increase, reaching another survey high of $402,200, as the higher-priced segment of the market continues to perform well." The MBA began its weekly survey nearly 31 years ago.

The higher-priced segment is doing so well because there is so much more supply. The low end of the market is incredibly slim, and that is forcing first-time buyers to the sidelines. The total number of homes for sale in January hit a new low, down nearly 43% from a year earlier, according to realtor.com. Homes also sold on average 10 days faster.