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Mortgage Rates Increase for First Time in Six Weeks

FEB 13, 2014 12:28pm ET
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Mortgage rates for 30-year loans increased for the first time in six weeks as the two-year-old housing recovery showed signs of slowing.

The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.28% this week, up from 4.23%, Freddie Mac said Thursday. The average 15-year rate held at 3.33%, the McLean, Va.-based mortgage-finance company said.

While job growth and tight inventories have bolstered the housing recovery, prices have climbed faster than incomes, putting real estate out of reach for some buyers. An affordability index by the National Association of Realtors—a gauge of median prices, family incomes and mortgage rates—fell last year from a record high in 2012. In the fourth quarter, single-family home prices rose from a year earlier in 73% of U.S. cities, down from 88% in the previous three months, the Realtors group said this week.

"As demand pulls back, I expect a reduction in price gains," Lindsey Piegza, the Chicago-based chief economist for Sterne, Agee & Leech Inc., said in an interview Wednesday. "We've simply reverted to the underlying modest trend, which is a best-case scenario. It allows the housing market to slowly recover and minimizes the chance of a housing bubble."

However, a monthly survey of single-family new home sales came in at a seasonally adjusted rate of 543,000 for January, up 35% from December's seasonally adjusted rate of 402,000 units, the Mortgage Bankers Association also announced Thursday. The survey incorporates data from the mortgage lending divisions of homebuilders and other sources to estimate new home sales volume. Mike Fratantoni, the MBA's chief economist, noted in a press release that January's increase comes after a slow pace of sales in the last two months of 2013.

“While the big jump may appear to conflict with other data, such as MBA’s purchase application index and [the National Association of Realtors'] existing home sales data that point to a weak market for existing homes, our Builder Application Survey estimate is consistent with reports of homebuilder sentiment that show strength in the market for new homes,” Fratantoni said.

A jump in mortgage rates from near-record lows in May has contributed to cooling demand. While the 30-year rate has retreated from a two-year high of 4.58% in August, borrowing costs are poised to increase as the Federal Reserve trims bond purchases that had pushed down rates.

Janet Yellen, who took over as chairman of the central bank this month, pledged this week to maintain her predecessor Ben S. Bernanke's policies by scaling back the stimulus in "measured steps."

Austin Kilgore contributed to this report.

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