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Mortgage Rates Rise; Home Sales Unaffected

By Jane Bryant Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2000

Mortgage rates and home prices are climbing in every part of the country. But buyers hardly seem to notice. They're confident about their jobs and earnings. Many are flush with equity in their existing homes, or money taken out of stocks. First-timers can often get mortgages with little (or zero!) money down.

In the Washington, D.C., region of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage (formerly Norwest), March brought the largest volume of mortgage applications seen in the past two years, says manager Cliff Frohn.

But there's another side to this coin. Rising prices and rates are taking a toll on would-be buyers with lower incomes.

The declines are especially noticeable among single people, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, according to the latest survey by Chicago Title.

``Every time mortgage rates rise a quarter of a point, some first-time buyers are pushed out,'' says David Lereah, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association in Washington, D.C.

Average rates on 30-year fixed-payment loans are currently running at 8.2 percent nationwide, as measured by HSH Associates in Butler, N.J. That's up from 6.5 percent at the end of 1998.

One-year adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) are averaging 6.7 percent.

Homeowners who can afford fixed rates are locking them in, lest they rise higher. But there has been a decided shift toward ARMs, especially hybrid ARMs, says Nick Kresnich, director of secondary and capital markets at Bank of America.

Hybrid ARMs give you fixed rates for the first five, seven or 10 years. You pay more per month than you would for a one-year adjustable, but less than for a fixed-rate loan. After the fixed term expires, the loan adjusts annually.

Hybrid ARMs suit buyers who think they'll move before the term is up; also, buyers who can't afford a fixed-rate loan, but want to nail down their house payments in the early years.

New on the market: hybrid fixed-rate mortgages. Here, you start with a 30-year fixed loan. If interest rates fall, your rate can drop to a fixed, lower level. To qualify, you have to be current on the loan. The bank might also check to see if you're still employed.

City Line Mortgage in San Diego will lower your rate whenever general rates drop by at least one-eighth of a percent, says CEO James Riley. You pay your state's title company cost ($200 to $500). This offer is good for loans up to $252,700.

A loan to be launched by Wells Fargo on April 25 can drop in quarter-point increments. To get this feature, you'll pay a fee of 1 percent of the loan, upfront. At Wells Fargo, that's cheaper than refinancing, Frohn says.

For first-time buyers, or trade-up buyers who want to use their home equity to buy stock, more banks are offering no-downpayment loans. You're charged a higher interest rate (up to 1 percent more, depending on the bank), and need a good income and credit history.

At the lender Countrywide, you can finance not only your entire home loan but also up to 3 percent in closing costs (on loans of $325,000 or less, in all states except Hawaii and Alaska). Cost: an extra three-eighths to a half-point interest.

People are eager to buy because they see home prices going up, says Michael Taliaferro, Countrywide's executive vice president.

As for house prices, the rise in 23 major metro areas ranged from 2.7 percent to 16.1 percent last year, as measured by the Case-Shiller index of home price changes. There were double-digit gains in San Francisco, Denver, Boston, Minneapolis, San Diego and Seattle.

Three main things drive housing prices, says economist Karl Case: stock market gains (especially for bigger homes), job growth and the number of new houses built in the area.

It's hard to add housing in, say, metro Boston and San Francisco. Land supply is both tight and expensive, and those cities have a lot of land-use rules.

``In Massachusetts, you have to kick butt if you want to build homes,'' he says. This helps create a cascade effect. When the most desirable homes get too expensive, people turn to second-tier neighborhoods and bid them up, too.

Building is easier in the South and Southeast, he says. New subdivisions keep opening, so prices don't rise as much, even in cities with high job growth. But still, they rise.

Jane Bryant Quinn welcomes letters on money issues and problems but cannot offer individual financial advice.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company




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