WASHINGTON -- The average U.S. rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage rose above 4 percent for the first time in five months. The sharp increase suggests the window to buy or refinance a home at historically low rates is closing.
Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the rate on the 30-year loan jumped to 4.08 percent, up from 3.92 percent the previous week. A month ago, it touched 3.87 percent, the lowest since long-term mortgages began in the 1950s.
The average on the 15-year fixed mortgage rose to 3.30 percent, up from 3.16 percent last week and a record low of 3.13 percent two weeks ago.
Mortgage rates are rising because they tend to track the yield on the 10-year Treasury note. The economic outlook has improved in recent weeks, leading investors to shift money out of long-term U.S. Treasury bonds and into stocks. That has driven Treasury yields higher.
"With the economy getting stronger, the markets are beginning to recognize that rates are too low," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. "That means mortgage rates should rise."
The average rate on the 30-year mortgage had been at or below 4 percent since last October.
Higher mortgage rates could spur more sales, especially if home prices begin to rise. Potential buyers will likely move quickly to avoid paying higher rates down the line.
"As we move through the year, buyer reaction could be very strong," Naroff said.
The lowest mortgage rates on record have helped lift the housing market in recent months.
January and February made up the best winter for sales of previously occupied homes in five years, when the housing crisis began.
Builders have grown more confident over the past six months after seeing more people express interest in buying a home. They have responded by requesting the most permits to build single-family homes and apartments since October 2008.
Optimism is also rising because the job market has strengthened. Employers have added an average 244,600 jobs per month from December through February. That has helped lower the unemployment rate to 8.3 percent, the lowest level in nearly three years.
Even with the improvement, the housing market is still weak. Millions of foreclosures and short sales - when a lender accepts less than what is owed on a mortgage - remain on the market. And the housing crisis and recession have also persuaded many Americans to rent instead of buy, which has led to a drop in homeownership.
Economists say housing is years away from returning to full health.
To calculate the average rates, Freddie Mac surveys lenders across the country on Monday through Wednesday of each week.
The average rates don't include extra fees, known as points, which most borrowers must pay to get the lowest rates. One point equals 1 percent of the loan amount.
The average fees for the 30-year and 15-year fixed loans were 0.8, unchanged from 0.8 last week.
For the five-year adjustable loan, the average rate rose to 2.96 percent from 2.83 percent, and the average fee edged down to 0.7 from 0.8.
The average on the one-year adjustable loan rose to 2.84 percent from 2.79 percent, and the average fee was unchanged at 0.6.
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Taking Inventory: Foreclosure Finds Across the U.S.
Mortgage Rates Finally Top 4 Percent as Economy Gains Steam
Location: Trenton, N.J.
Average Foreclosure Discount: 67.8 percent
Sq. Ft.: N/A
Trenton ranks No. 1 on RealtyTrac's list of cities with the steepest foreclosure discounts. This single-family, whose price was slashed recently, represents one of the killer deals you can find in the city.
Dating back to the 1960s, this Cape Cod-style home offers three bedrooms and two baths. Judging by the average foreclosure discount of New Jersey, the home could be running as much as $150,000 below market value.
Average Foreclosure Discount: 49.67 percent
Price: $3.75 million
Sq. Ft.: 22,000
Foreclosed homes in Atlanta are selling for a staggering 50 percent off, according to data from RealtyTrac. This vacant Mediterranean mansion offers a rather excessive four kitchens along with amenities that include a home theater, pool, spa, steam room and elevator.
Average Foreclosure Discount: 48.14 percent
Price: $4.29 million
Sq. Ft.: 12,129
It may be hard to believe that $4.29 million is a below-market price, but given that this stucco Mediterranean is bank-owned and Houston's foreclosure discount approaches 50 percent, odds are that the home could be quite a deal for a well-heeled buyer.
Location: St. Louis
Average Foreclosure Discount: 54.61 percent
Sq. Ft.: 1,342
This brick-built home, which dates back to 1930, probably hit the market at a reduced price to begin with, but now is running even lower, having just undergone a price cut. The home offers stained-glass windows and wood flooring along with a spruced-up kitchen.
Pictured here is the home's updated kitchen. The residence is even more of a deal if you factor in its purported HomePath Mortgage status. That means if you've got the right credit, you could snatch it for as little as 3 percent down.
Location: Lansing, Mich.
Average Foreclosure Discount: 44.31 percent
Sq. Ft.: 2,228
Squeezed into a condo community, this historic home stands out in the neighborhood because of its stately portico. The home has a long residential tradition, but could go commercial if the buyer so chooses: The house can serve as an office, according to the listing.
Location: Grand Rapids, Mich.
Average Foreclosure Discount: 43.45 percent
Sq. Ft.: 4,339
You get a lot of bang for your buck if you buy this four-bedroom contemporary. Located on a cul-de-sac, the home spans a generous 4,339 feet and offers a three-car garage. At under $300,000, that makes it an affordable luxury residence.
Location: Flint, Mich.
Average Foreclosure Discount: 21.55 percent
Sq. Ft.: N/A
Purchase a foreclosed home in Flint and you're likely to enjoy the benefit of more than 20 percent off. While the city's foreclosure inventory doesn't offer deals quite as striking as those found in some other cities wracked by the housing crisis, the town's average foreclosed-home price still falls far, far below the national median (which hovers above $200,000). Flint's average foreclosed-home price is just $60,578. This well-landscaped home demonstrates how far just $110,000 gets you.
Location: Easton, Pa.
Average Foreclosure Discount: 41.17 percent
Sq. Ft.: 1,556
Alright! A listing description that levels with you. "This is a property that needs some work," it states. The home is not without its virtues, however: It offers ample space, three bedrooms and an attic. Furthermore, buyers can acquire 3 percent buyer's assistance if they make an offer by the 31st of this month.
One thing buyers should watch out for if they think about shelling out for these digs is that, as with many other foreclosures, there is no seller disclosure for buyers interested in this home. That means, unless you pay for a thorough inspection, you could discover hidden flaws after purchasing the place.
Pictured here is the home's open dining-kitchen area. The place seems to be in pretty good shape for a foreclosed home. Many fall into poor condition, succumbing to insect infestations or other symptoms of neglect.