Falling mortgage rates may already be lifting home prices

Real Estate

A prospective home buyer, left, is shown a  home by a real estate agent in Coral Gables, Florida.

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Mortgage rates have been falling steadily since the last week of April, and that may be reigniting home price appreciation. The lower the rate, the more purchasing power buyers have.

Home price gains had been shrinking since last summer, when rates rose sharply, but now they are making a U-turn as rates have been falling pretty steadily since April.

The median price of a home sold in May rose 3.6% compared with a year ago, according to Redfin. That is the largest gain in 7 months.

“As mortgage rates have fallen this month, Redfin has seen upticks in the number of people wanting to talk with our agents about buying homes and the number going on home tours,” said Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather. “Recent surges in mortgage applications also reflect the impact low rates are having on homebuyer demand nationwide.”

A report from CoreLogic showed prices up 3.6% in April annually, the first annual increase since March of last year.

“The pickup in sales between March and April, has helped to counter the recent slowing in annual home-price growth,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist at CoreLogic. “Mortgage rates are 0.6 percentage points below what they were one year ago and incomes are up, which has improved affordability for buyers. However, price growth has remained the highest for lower-priced homes, constraining housing choices for first-time buyers.”

Rate drop on 30-year fixed mortgage

And that is the double-edged sword for most home buyers today. The average rate on the 30-year fixed has fallen from just over 5% last November to about 3.86% today, according to Mortgage News Daily, providing a sizable savings on a monthly payment. But while buyers may get a break there, the supply of lower-priced homes for sale is still incredibly low.

The reasons for the supply constraint are manifold. Home builders are still not putting up as many entry-level homes as are needed because the costs of land, labor and materials are just too high. There were 404,000 job openings in the construction sector in April, the highest since the Great recession, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

In addition, the existing supply of entry-level homes was eaten into significantly by investors during the housing crisis. Millions of homes that went to foreclosure are now part of a new asset class of institutional investor-owned rental portfolios.

Some analysts expected investors to sell off all these homes when the market recovered, but most did not, or if they did, they sold to other investors. Single-family rental demand is very high, and the properties continue to be lucrative, especially with management structures now built in.

Lower interest rates therefore mean even more competition for entry-level buyers. On the higher end, homes are more plentiful, but demand is far lower.

“In May, inventory posted its smallest increase in eight months, and fewer new listings came on the market than last year,” said Fairweather. “Low rates and rising prices will likely lure sellers onto the market this summer, but the lack of new construction will continue to hold back sales growth.”

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