In the face of volatility in the financial markets and new concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, mortgage rates were essentially flat this week.

According to the latest data released Thursday by Freddie Mac, the 30-year fixed-rate average ticked up to 3.11 percent with an average 0.6 point. (A point is a fee paid to a lender equal to 1 percent of the loan amount. It is in addition to the interest rate.) It was 3.1 percent a week ago and 2.71 percent a year ago.

Freddie Mac, the federally chartered mortgage investor, aggregates rates from around 80 lenders across the country to come up with weekly national averages. The survey is based on home purchase mortgages. Rates for refinances may be different. It uses rates for high-quality borrowers with strong credit scores and large down payments. Because of the criteria, these rates are not available to every borrower.

The 15-year fixed-rate average slid to 2.39 percent with an average 0.6 point. It was 2.42 percent a week ago and 2.26 percent a year ago. The five-year adjustable rate average increased to 2.49 percent with an average 0.3 point. It was 2.47 percent a week ago and 2.86 percent a year ago.

“Mortgage rates have been on a bumpy upward trajectory since September,” said Holden Lewis, a home and mortgage specialist with NerdWallet. “This week was one of those bumps, as investors sought the safety of government and mortgage bonds as they await more information about the new coronavirus variant.”

Financial markets hate uncertainty, and the arrival of the first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the United States on Wednesday brought with it new uncertainty about how it will affect the economy. Since the new variant was first reported, the yield on the 10-year Treasury has tumbled to 1.43 percent as of Wednesday as investors fled to the safety of bonds. The increased demand for bonds drives up prices and pushes down yields. The yield was 1.67 percent before Thanksgiving.

Long-term bond yields were also impacted by comments Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell made before the Senate Banking Committee this week. Besides acknowledging that inflation was no longer “transitory,” Powell indicated the Fed may taper or reduce its asset purchases faster than expected. The central bank’s bond-buying program has kept mortgage rates low since early in the pandemic.

“Markets are reacting more to COVID-omicron fears than anything else,” said Dick Lepre, senior loan officer, RPM Mortgage. “Fed chairman Powell stated that inflation would persist well into 2022, but the Moderna CEO expressed concerns about current vaccines against the omicron variant. Unless fear abates, we will see money move to the safety of Treasury and (mortgage-backed security) debt.”

Bankrate.com, which puts out a weekly mortgage rate trend index, found the experts it surveyed mixed on where rates are headed in the coming week. Nearly half said they would fall, about a third said they would stay the same and the remainder said they would rise. Ken H. Johnson, a real estate economist at Florida Atlantic University, is one who predicts mortgage rates will go down.

“Uncertainty over the impact of the omicron variant and the potential for rising inflation is driving a lot of money to safe haven investments – mortgage bonds, 10-year Treasury notes, etc.,” Johnson said. “This flight to safety is driving up the price of these securities and pushing down their yields. Long-term mortgage rates will fall in the coming week.”

The Federal Housing Finance Agency announced this week the conforming loan limits for mortgages purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac next year. Most mortgages are bought by one of the two federally chartered mortgage investors, which acquire only loans that fall below the limit. Mortgages that exceed the limit are called jumbo loans and are not backed by either Fannie or Freddie, which makes them more challenging to obtain. In high-cost housing markets such as Washington, home buyers often struggle to stay below the national limit.

For most of the United States, the FHFA raised the conforming loan limit to $647,200 for 2022, up from $548,250 in 2021. The 18 percent increase is the biggest one-year jump. FHFA based the increase on its house price index for the third quarter. According to its data, house prices grew 18.5 percent year over year in the third quarter, the fastest appreciation on record.

In high-priced markets, which includes most but not all of the Washington market, the limit was raised to $970,800 in 2022, up from $822,375 in 2021. The new loan limit affects the District and surrounding counties, except for Howard County, Anne Arundel County and St. Mary’s County. Those three counties fall under the $647,200 limit.

Meanwhile, mortgage applications dwindled last week. According to the latest data from the Mortgage Bankers Association, the market composite index – a measure of total loan application volume – decreased 7.2 percent from a week earlier. The purchase index increased 5 percent, but the refinance index tumbled 15 percent. The refinance share of mortgage activity accounted for 59.4% of applications.

“Mortgage applications declined during the week of Thanksgiving, as a strong gain in purchase applications was offset by a sharp decrease in refinance activity,” said Bob Broeksmit, president and chief executive of MBA. “The 0.15 percent jump in mortgage rates over the past three weeks has curbed refinance demand, but total refinance originations in 2021 are still on pace to be the third-highest ever at $2.32 trillion. Purchase applications have now increased for four straight weeks, a sign of pent-up homebuying demand heading into December. With housing inventory still very low, especially for first-time buyers, an elevated share of activity is from buyers with bigger budgets searching for larger homes.”


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