Weekly mortgage applications fall as the highest rates in a month are spooking spring buyers

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Prospective home buyers arrive with a realtor to a house for sale in Dunlap, Illinois.

Homebuyers had been brushing off the slight rise in rates during recent weeks, but as those rates move even higher, pruchasers are now pulling back.

Overall mortgage application volume fell 7.3% last week from the previous week, but it was 6.6% higher than a year ago, thanks to stronger refinance volume, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association's seasonally adjusted index.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($484,350 or less) increased to 4.46% from 4.44%, with points increasing to 0.44 from 0.42 (including the origination fee) for loans with a 20% down payment. The rate has risen 10 basis points in the past three weeks and is now at its highest level in over a month.

"Borrowers remain extremely sensitive to rate changes," said Mike Fratantoni, MBA senior vice president and chief economist. "Borrowing costs have recently drifted higher because of ebbing geopolitical concerns, as well as signs of strengthening in the U.S. economy, including the recent data pointing to robust retail sales."

Applications to refinance a home loan, which are most sensitive to interest rates, fell 11% for the week but were nearly 13% higher than a year ago. Mortgage rates were a significant 27 basis points higher last year.

Mortgage applications to purchase a home, which had been holding strong amid higher rates, fell 4% for the week. They were still 3% higher than a year ago, but that annual comparison is shrinking. Purchase applications should be strengthening as the spring season progresses and the supply of homes for sale rises.

Supply was up 2.4% annually at the end of March, according to the National Association of Realtors, but much of that increase is not from more new listings. Instead, listings are sitting for a longer time and piling up.

"The strong economy and job market is keeping buyer interest high, but rising mortgage rates could add pressure to the budgets of some would-be buyers," Fratantoni said.

Recent home sales reports are showing just how sensitive today's buyers are. Sales of existing homes in March, which are based on closings and therefore contracts signed in January and February, were disappointing. Sales of newly built homes, however, were stronger than expected, but those numbers are based on contracts signed in March, not closings.

Mortgage rates took a steep dive in March, and that likely juiced sales. With rates now higher again, sales could falter.

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