Mortgage Mess Still Mires Housing Recovery

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President Obama says he wants more Americans to be able to save money by refinancing their mortgages. The trouble is that mortgage rates are rising, now at their highest level since September of last year, before the Federal Reserve announced it would buy more agency mortgage-backed securities in order to drive rates down. Last week applications to refinance fell 6 percent from the previous week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

"The banking industry has largely refinanced most prime customers in portfolio. For 2012, Q3/4 looks like the peak for industry mortgage banking revenue. The industry is expecting lower volumes in 2013," says Christopher Whalen of Carrington Investment Services. "New loan originations will hopefully rise a bit this year to offset lower refinancing activity."

But that has not been the case so far.

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Mortgage applications to purchase a home dropped more dramatically than did refinances, down 10 percent from the previous week. While one week does not a trend make, rising mortgage rates, coupled with severe inventory shortages, are not the mix needed for a healthy spring housing market.

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"Many homeowners may simply be deciding to play the market and wait for their home to appreciate before putting it up for sale. Despite the drop in applications, we have seen anecdotal evidence of homes selling very quickly after entering the market," says Bob Walters, chief economist at Quicken Loans.

Days on market are shrinking across the nation, but only because supplies are so low. It's not just the former boom to bust to boom markets, like Phoenix and Las Vegas; local Realtor associations show inventories are down dramatically from a year ago in Charlotte (-29 percent), Dallas (-19 percent), Minneapolis (-32 percent), and Washington, DC (-36 percent) to name a few.

"The low and negative equity of a large number of mortgage holders has kept significant inventory off the market, and many would-be sellers with adequate equity feed into the problem by holding off until they find something to buy," says Jonathan Miller of CEO of Miller Samuel Inc. "I believe the chronic low inventory phenomenon we are seeing has little to do with lack of consumer confidence and more to do with reasonable access to mortgage financing."

President Obama echoed that sentiment in his State of the Union addressTuesday night.

"Overlapping regulations keep responsible young families from buying their first home," Mr. Obama said. Not exactly a new sentiment, as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has said the same thing several times, as have other federal regulators.

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Rising mortgage rates and tight credit standards keep first time-home buyers out, while falling inventories make it more difficult for existing home buyers to move up. The housing market is therefore still largely in the hands of all-cash investors, looking for distressed properties to buy and then rent out. Ironically, perhaps for now, more distressed properties coming to market will be what keeps home sales afloat.

—By CNBC's Diana Olick; Follow her on Twitter @Diana_Olick or on Facebook at

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