Rising mortgage rates are the top concern for homebuyers

In the current housing market, prices are high, the supply of homes is low and credit is tight. But the number one concern for potential homebuyers is rising mortgage rates, according to a recent online survey by real estate research firm Trulia.

More than 40 percent of people who planned to eventually buy a home said they were worried about rising rates, followed by rising home prices and low inventory. Among those homeowners who were planning to buy a home within the next year, inventory just edged out rising rates, the survey said.

The 30-year fixed rate touched 4.5 percent last week, according to data from Freddie Mac, and there appears to be no turning back, economists say. If rates rise too fast, they have the potential to hurt the housing recovery by pricing homebuyers out of the market.

More than half of homebuyers also said that they would be discouraged from entering the market if rates reached 6 percent. Rates are still low by historical standards, but people have grown accustomed to them being below 4 percent, said Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia.

Mortgage rates have been under the spotlight lately following the Federal Reserve’s statements that it could wind down its stimulus program early if the economy keeps improving. The Fed’s bond-buying program has kept rates artificially low since the housing crash. As Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke testifies this week before Congress, his remarks will be carefully scrutinized to get a sense of the central bank’s policy direction for the rest of the year.

It’s logical for people to be worried about rising rates, Kolko said, but what they should really concentrate on is credit.

“Low mortgage rates don’t do much good if you can’t get a mortgage,” he said.

There are some signs that banks have started to loosen credit standards, Kolko said, but rising mortgage rates may actually help further loosen them. Mortgage credit availability increased in June compared with last year, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

“Some banks will look to do more home purchase lending as their refinancing business shrinks,” he said.

Homeowners who want to refinance their mortgages — to take advantage of low rates — are immediately affected by rising rates. The number of refinancing applications has fallen to its lowest level in two years over the past few weeks, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

In the near future, rising rates are more likely to push demand higher, Kolko and other economists say.

Amrita Jayakumar covers federal government contracting for Capital Business, The Post's local business publication.
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