If you've been putting off buying a house -- playing a game of chicken with long-term interest rates to see just how low they can go -- now might be the time to make your move.
Freddie Mac is reporting that the 30-year fixed mortgage rate averaged 3.59% for the week ending Aug. 9, up from the previous week's average of 3.55%. Two weeks ago, the rate was 3.49%, the lowest rate ever for long-term mortgages. The 15-year fixed rate was up as well, from 2.83% to 2.84%.
These are small moves to be sure, especially in the 15-year rate. But with coinciding news that housing demand is outstripping supply and that home prices are starting to edge up, it's possible that long-term mortgage rates have finally bottomed out and that this homebuyer's dream era of historically low rates is starting to move behind us.
Rising Rates + Rising Home Prices = Time to Buy?
The data comes from Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey, or PMMS. The PMMS is a weekly look at the mortgage market's most popular rates:
5/1-year hybrid adjustable
Freddie gathers the data by surveying lenders, and it has been conducting the benchmark survey since 1971. And as this mortgage data has come to light, so has corroborating Freddie house price data.
The Freddie Mac House Price Index is showing that from May to June of this year, prices rose 1.39%. Looking at the numbers year over year (June 2011 versus June 2012), home prices are up by 1.02%.
Again, this isn't a massive rise, but it is a rise -- something the housing market hasn't seen for ages.
It's All in Your Head -- Which Makes It Real
What economic forces are at work here? According to Freddie's Chief Economist Frank Nothaft: "... Rates inched up again this week following stronger-than-expected employment reports ... In addition, the number of announced corporate layoffs fell 45% in July compared to last July."
In other words, while the country is still not adding jobs the way it needs to be, the numbers are better than expected.
So people may be feeling a bit better about things overall. They feel more secure about their jobs, perhaps and, as such, feel more secure financially. When this happens, even though it's primarily psychological, they're more likely to spend, even on large purchases like houses.
Vibe: Lush green beauty meets smart urban planning
Sunny days per year: 176
Median home price: $145,000
As cities go, Spokane is a consistent award winner, both for its stunning Riverfront Park and its historic downtown. But the surrounding residential areas provide an easygoing livability that is part of the town's character, including wide, tree-shaded streets full of lovely old single-family homes. And because it's a big place -- the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis -- there are plenty of urban offerings. Over the decades, it has morphed from a logging and mining backwater to a cultural pearl.
Forget the Alamo -- just remember that while a lot of Texas cities have boomed in the past few decades, San Antonio has somehow managed to grow while still embracing its image as a sleepy tourist town.
Per capita, San Antonio has five times as many libraries and museums as Austin; seven times as many as Houston. The city's new bike-share program lets you pedal all over town for $10 a day -- a nice way to head down to El Mercado in Old Market Square, reputedly the biggest Mexican marketplace outside Mexico. And of course there's the famous San Antonio River Walk and its endless selection of restaurants with patio dining.
Vibe: A bustling small city amid the magic of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Sunny days per year: 217
Median home price: $151,500
Certainly Roanoke's pleasant climate, its 22 miles of walkable/bikeable greenways and the spectacular backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains helped land the city on the list this year. So did its incredibly rich history of both Roanoke and the surrounding valley. (Notable Civil War battles include Hunter's Raid of 1864.)
But its 100-foot-high illuminated star, erected 40 years ago, isn't the only aspect of the city that is burning brightly: Building its reputation as the "City of Festivals," the town now boasts Roanoke Festival In the Park, Downtown Roanoke's Railway Festival, Henry Street Festival, Vinton's Dogwood Festival, The Virginia Championship Chili Cook-off and the Strawberry Festival, making it one of the liveliest towns in the region.
Vibe: The city's 88 distinct neighborhoods create a European atmosphere
Sunny days per year: 194
Median home price: $106,500
With affordable arts (Pittsburgh is home to one of the nation's great symphony orchestras), terrific food (the aroma of ethnic eateries permeates the Strip District) and not one but three beautiful, bridge-spanned rivers to boat on, the Steel City has a lock on great reasons to live there.
The best place to soak in Pittsburgh's easygoing spirit is bucolic Frick Park. In the summer, take a free lawn bowling lesson at the bowling green. In winter, sled down the popular hill near Beechwood Boulevard. Pittsburgh's resurgent Pirates play in PNC Park (bleacher seats from $13). With its majestic waterfront skyline view, it's ranked the No. 1 baseball field in the country by ESPN. Good luck snagging tickets to a Steelers football game; locals would sooner part with their spleen than give up a nosebleed seat at Heinz Field. Less obvious than the city's sports maniacs -- but just as enthusiastic -- are Pittsburgh's art, theater and music crowds.
Big companies and generous benefactors have been pouring money into Omaha for the past several years, and all that spending has made Nebraska's largest city a fun -- if flat -- place to live. Mutual of Omaha financed the new Midtown Crossing, which along with other developments is turning former industrial areas into housing gems.
You'll find the residents of those new digs heading down to the Old Market area, where establishments such as Mr. Toad's offer live jazz with no cover charge. Seniors pay just $12.50 at the world-class Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. (Don't miss walking the rope bridge in the rain forest exhibit.) The baked goods at WheatFields rock, and so does its senior menu, where a Grandmere Scramble or a Dusseldorf Casserole goes for $8.50
Vibe: Small college city combines Appalachian roots with a strong local economy
Sunny days per year: 185
Median home price: $168,900
While Morgantown may be the epicenter of Appalachia and proud of its hillbilly roots, the city -- and the entire region -- is far richer. Since the 1880s, coal mines attracted immigrants from around the world, who have influenced the local culture and driven the railroad, glass and mining industries. And, as the home of the first New Deal homestead community, its history is rich.
While its low unemployment rate and strong local economy are certainly its most touted strength, the city's big surprise is its excellent health care. Of our top 10, it ranks No. 2 in doctors-per-capita, beaten only by Gainesville, Fla.
Vibe: A sunny cocktail of Old Mexico, the Wild West and high-desert casual living
Sunny days per year: 287
Median home price: $148,000
A small town with big-city amenities, Las Cruces already had a lot going for it, like plenty of brilliant sunshine tempered by high-desert breezes. Mountains surround it on three sides, and there's plenty of exciting Wild West history to uncover. (It's where a judge sentenced Billy the Kid to "hang until you are dead, dead, dead," to which he is said to have replied, "Go to hell, hell, hell.")
When you factor in the Southwest's massive real-estate meltdown and the state's low property taxes, this sunny little city becomes a bargain hunter's paradise.
Grand Junction's affordability was hard-won: When the collapsing energy market dropkicked the town back in 1982, citizens took a hard look at their boom-and-bust history. In a concerted effort to diversify, they beefed up tourism -- from opening new country music venues to, starting in 2011, launching the state's only Lavender Festival.
The city was a pioneer in establishing downtown sculpture exhibits -- a local favorite is a shiny bison called "Chrome on the Range II." Combined with the classic Victorian architecture, the contemporary pieces make this town feel old and new at the same time.
Local football hero Tim Tebow stayed in shape running up and down the stairs at University of Florida's Griffin Stadium -- and so can you, for free. It's just one way this health-conscious city enhances the lives of those lucky enough to live here.
The university gives Gainesville its hip reputation -- the campus recently hosted a Japanese drumming concert -- but Gainesville is also an old-fashioned Southern charmer. Take the time to wander the cobblestone streets, admiring the wrought iron fences in front of Victorian gems and marveling at drivers who wave rather than lean on the horn.
Vibe: Family-friendly values with a progressive twist
Sunny days per year: 200
Median home price: $121,100
Fans say spunky little Eau Claire is something of a Midwestern throwback -- safe, friendly and a solid family-oriented community. Recent redevelopment has seen the rise of downtown loft apartments and Phoenix Park, as well as popular (and free!) concerts throughout the summer. A branch of the University of Wisconsin provides plenty of cultural and entertainment programming. (Those 60 and older can audit courses for no cost.) And locals say volunteerism is a significant part of the town's character.
Anything else to consider? We've also by now had several rounds of quantitative easing, or QE. QE is when the Federal Reserve steps into the bond market and buys U.S. Treasuries. In order to do this, it essentially prints money, which is what central banks have the power to do. QE, therefore, puts more money into circulation, and Economics 101 tells us that when you put more money into circulation, the cost of goods will go up -- goods like houses. This is the downside of QE: the risk of inflation. But in the case of the U.S. housing market, it's so overdue, having been depressed for so many years, that some inflation is likely a welcome sign.
So, is it time to run out and buy a house, before rates and home prices rise even further? Even if 30-year and 15-year fixed rates aren't about to start zooming up, they're at historic lows and are unlikely to go any lower. The situation is similar with house prices: They may not be about to rocket up (let's hope not -- a housing bubble is what caused the financial crash), but they are unlikely to get much lower.
As a prospective homeowner, this might be a perfect storm of low rates, cheap houses, and a recovering economy -- even if it's an ever-so-slightly recovering one. But as always before a major purchase, make sure it makes sense for your personal financial situation.