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Mortgage Applications Drop, Housing Mired in Slump

Applications to buy and refinance homes dropped last week, an industry trade group said on Wednesday, the latest sign that U.S. housing remains mired in a downturn.

The Mortgage Bankers Association's mortgage application index slid 3.4% to a seasonally adjusted 643.7 in the week ended June 15.

The drop in applications piled on to reports from the country's builders and the government this week suggesting any sustained housing rebound could be next year's business.

Housing starts fell more than 2% in May as builders grappled with a stockpile of unsold homes, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday.

Sentiment among home builders sank to its weakest level this month in more than 16 years, based on an index reported on Monday by the National Association of Home Builders. The group expects building and sales will keep eroding until late this year before starting to recover in 2008.

On Wednesday, the MBA's seasonally adjusted purchase index fell 3% to 450.9 while its refinancing applications index shed 4.2% to 1,776.8 on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Thirty-year mortgage rates dipped 0.01% last week to 6.6%, the MBA said. Average 30-year mortgage rates last hovered in this area in July 2006.

Last week, the MBA reported that U.S. homeowners started the foreclosure process at a record pace in the first three months of the year.

Subprime Impact

Among the bigger problems were subprime adjustable-rate mortgages in some of the markets that had been the hottest during the five-year record home price and sales spree earlier this decade.

Riskier borrowers are increasingly being pushed into the foreclosure process as their adjustable loans reset at much higher loan rates, boosting payments beyond reach.

On Tuesday, Dallas Federal Reserve economist John Duca cautioned that the housing slump could be prolonged by lenders cutting back loans to subprime borrowers, or those with blemished credit histories.

Many lenders have become much more restrictive in response to the mounting late payments and foreclosures. As a result, more applications are being rejected, and builders worry that rising mortgage rates will weaken demand for homes already pressured by tighter lending practices.