Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages fell slightly this week to 5.74 percent, down from 5.76 percent last week, Freddie Mac said Thursday in its weekly nationwide survey of mortgage rates.

Rates on 30-year mortgages hit a high this year of 6.34 percent the week of May 13. After that, rates, while bouncing around, generally drifted lower.

"Because long-term mortgage rates are still well below the peak levels reached last May of this year, housing starts are currently exceeding expectations," said Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac's chief economist.

Housing construction jumped 6.4 percent in October from the previous month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.03 million units, the highest level of this year, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday.

"With no dramatic rise in rates on the horizon, the housing industry should continue to be healthy well into the future," Nothaft predicted.

For 15-year fixed-rate mortgages, a popular option for refinancing, rates this week averaged 5.15 percent, down from 5.16 percent last week.

For one-year adjustable-rate mortgages, rates increased to 4.17 percent this week, compared with 4.16 percent last week.

Rates on one-year ARMs had risen sharply in the previous week, a development that was related to the Federal Reserve's decision on Nov. 10 to boost a key short-term rate by 1/4 percentage point to 2 percent.

The nationwide averages for mortgage rates do not include add-on fees known as points. Thirty-year and 15-year mortgages each carried a 0.6 point fee. One-year ARMs carried a 0.7 point fee.

Low mortgage rates have aided the housing market, which is expected to hit record highs in sales for all of 2004.

A year ago, rates on 30-year mortgages averaged 6.03 percent, with 15-year mortgages at 5.39 percent and one-year ARMs at 3.76 percent.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, meanwhile, said refinancing accounted for 48.6 percent of all home mortgage loan applications filed last week, up from 45.2 percent in the previous week.

EVENTS . . . A construction-watch tour of American University's Katzen Arts Center is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon Dec. 4. Project manager Eric Petersen of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott is to lead the tour, which is sponsored by the National Building Museum and open only to museum members. The center is to include classrooms, studio and performance spaces, and galleries for the university's art collection. Admission is $15, plus annual membership. Registration is required by Friday. For information and directions, call 202-272-2448; Web site: www.nbm.org.

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