The 30-year fixed-rate average moved for the first time in three weeks, rising to 4.46 percent. (J. Lawler Duggan for The Washington Post)

After holding steady for nearly a month while awaiting a resolution to the federal government shutdown, fixed mortgage rates cautiously crept up this week.

According to the latest data released Thursday by Freddie Mac, the 30-year fixed-rate average inched up to 4.46 percent with an average 0.5 point. (Points are fees paid to a lender equal to 1 percent of the loan amount.) The rate was 4.45 percent a week ago and 4.22 percent a year ago.

The 15-year fixed-rate average ticked up to 3.89 percent with an average 0.4 point. It was 3.88 percent a week ago and 3.68 percent a year ago. The five-year adjustable-rate average jumped to 3.96 percent with an average 0.3 point. It was 3.90 percent a week ago and 3.53 percent a year ago.

“Rates jumped around somewhat over the past week, dipping after soft housing and consumer confidence data, and climbing after a strong private payrolls report,” said Aaron Terrazas, a senior economist at Zillow. “But bigger moves are on the horizon. As often occurs when [Federal Reserve] statements catch markets off guard, bond yields fell after the [Federal Reserve] announced its inclination to pause future rate hikes. Mortgage rates seem certain to follow in step. The next major data event on the horizon is Friday’s jobs report and, after weeks of relative calm, markets are poised for increased volatility.”

As expected, the Federal Reserve did not raise its benchmark rate at its meeting this week. Instead, the central bank signaled that it is in no rush to do so. That was enough to cause the stock market to surge and long-term bond yields to slip but too late in the week to be factored into Freddie Mac’s survey. The government-supported mortgage backer aggregates rates weekly from 125 lenders nationwide to come up with national average mortgage rates.

The Fed doesn’t set mortgage rates, but its decisions influence them. The central bank changed its description of the U.S. economy to “solid” from “strong,” a slight downgrade. The Fed’s cautiousness, coupled with pending home sales dropping to their lowest point in five years and home prices rising at a slower pace, could keep rates in check.

“On the heels of relatively weak December home contract signings, mortgage rates held relatively steady this week, which is good news for buyers currently in the market,” said Danielle Hale, chief economist for Realtor.com. “Today’s rate data was gathered before the conclusion of the Fed meeting yesterday, and while there was no change to short-term rates, the Fed’s statement did indicate that conditions warranted a ‘patient’ view of whether additional adjustments are necessary. In response, long-term rates slipped slightly lower, suggesting less upward pressure on mortgage rates in the weeks ahead.”

Bankrate.com, which puts out a weekly mortgage rate trend index, found the experts it surveyed were evenly split on where rates are headed. Half said rates will decrease, while the other half said rates will remain relatively stable in the coming week. Jim Sahnger, a mortgage planner at C2 Financial, is one who predicts that rates will move lower.

“The Fed released its statement Wednesday afternoon and stated what the rest of us already knew: The economy is slowing, signs of inflation are backing down and, with that, announced that future rate hikes must be warranted and not expected,” Sahnger said. “Bonds should benefit and rates should improve slightly over the next week. The only thing that could change this would be a blockbuster employment report on Friday.”

Meanwhile, mortgage applications continued to pull back this week, according to the latest data from the Mortgage Bankers Association. The market composite index — a measure of total loan application volume — decreased 3 percent from a week earlier. The refinance index fell 6 percent from the previous week, while the purchase index slipped 2 percent.

The refinance share of mortgage activity accounted for 42 percent of all applications.

“After increased activity in the early weeks of 2019, mortgage applications decreased for the second straight week, said Bob Broeksmit, president and chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association. “Although mortgage rates have trended lower since the fall, they are still higher than this time a year ago and likely played a role in the dip in purchase applications last week. The key driver to increase purchase activity this spring is inventory, especially at the entry-level price range. Demand is the strongest right now at the price point of most first-time buyers.”

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