The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage is nearing 5%, following a surge this week that put borrowing costs at their highest level since 2011, according to Freddie Mac.
The sharp increase in mortgage rates — to 4.9% this week, from 4.71% last week and 3.91% a year ago — stems from the same rise in the overall cost of borrowing that on Wednesday and Thursday sent stocks tumbling. The additional expense threatens to cause more would-be home buyers to hold off on a purchase.
The rise in mortgage rates from last year adds $251 a month to what previously would've been a $2,685 monthly mortgage payment on a $535,000 house.
Sam Khater, Freddie Mac’s chief economist, said rising rates and home prices are putting “downward pressure on purchase demand.”
The housing market was already softening. Nationwide, sales of previously owned homes have posted year-over-year declines for six straight months. In Southern California, sales last summer were the lowest in four years and the number of homes offered for sale is creeping up. Home price growth, though still strong, is also easing.
Real estate agents say higher rates are one reason would-be buyers seem increasingly willing to submit low-ball offers or call it quits altogether.
At the beginning of this year, rates surged over inflation fears before flattening out around 4.5%. Now rates are shooting up again, in part over expectations the Federal Reserve will keep lifting its key short-term interest rate as the U.S. economy grows stronger.
Fadel Lawandy, director of the Hoag Center for Real Estate and Finance at Chapman University, said higher borrowing costs will likely mean even fewer home sales and slower price growth. But higher rates shouldn’t derail the housing market.
He noted the economy is healthy and rates are still low historically. Through much of last decade, the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage hovered in the 6% range. In the 1990s, rates peaked at 10% — and a decade earlier, 18%.
“It’s still much cheaper to borrow money than 10, 15 years ago,” he said.
Like many other economists, Lawandy doesn’t expect values to decline unless there is a recession, citing the persistent mismatch between supply and demand in California.
But while Rick Palacios Jr., director of research at John Burns Real Estate Consulting in Irvine, doesn’t expect declines like last decade, he said declines are a real possibility. Affordability is already at or near a breaking point in many Southern California communities, and rising mortgage rates could be the thing that tips prices downward.
Falling home prices become more likely if people increasingly believe the market has peaked and cancel their home searches, thinking they’ll wait for a better deal. More home builders are telling the consulting firm they are seeing exactly that.
“Consumer psyche — people underestimate how fast that could change,” Palacios said.
Judging the exact trajectory is particularly difficult now, because the market often slows in late summer and early fall before picking up in the spring. During the six-year upswing in prices, there have also been moments when the market paused, even in spring, and then accelerated again. But that was earlier in the economy’s recovery.
Real estate agent Amber Dolle believes that this slowdown is real. Recently, a would-be buyer on one of her listings requested that a small cosmetic crack on the garage floor be fixed. When the seller declined, the buyer walked — something that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago, Dolle said. Other offers fell through, and Dolle pulled the Valencia home from the market. She and her client will try again in the spring.
But she’s not sure the traditionally strong spring selling season will live up to its reputation.
“Before, buyers were so desperate,” she said. Now they’re starting to “put their foot down.”