Mortgage interest rates rise, set to climb higher in 2010

Mortgage interest rates rose for the fourth consecutive week. If they continue to rise – as some experts expect – they could impact America's economic recovery.

By , Staff writer

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    A construction worker builds a new home in the community of New Bristow Village, in Bristow, Virginia, on Monday.
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Mortgage interest rates crept up for the fourth week in a row Thursday, a troubling sign for borrowers hoping that home finance will remain near historic lows during the new year.

The rate on a 30-year fixed loan rose to 5.14 percent, from recent lows below 5 percent, the Mortgage-industry giant Freddie Mac reported. The cost of adjustable-rate home loans also edged up in the report, the final weekly survey of the year.

"[Mortgages] still remain affordable by historical standards,” said Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac vice president and chief economist.

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But some analysts worry that uptick in recent weeks may portend a continued rise toward 6 percent in the new year. While that still would not be high by historical standards, that would dampen the buying power of home shoppers at a time when the housing market is still struggling to recover.

Where mortgage rates head from here, by affecting the health of the housing market, will also affect the tone of economic recovery in 2010.

Even higher rates ahead?

In recent months, demand for homes has strengthened and recession-linked declines in home prices have stopped. Government tax incentives for first-time buyers have helped fuel housing demand, and the Federal Reserve has helped to keep interest rates low by buying up mortgage-securities. (The Fed's demand for mortgage-based bonds is essentially pumping money into the market for housing finance, making it easier for lenders to provide credit.)

Both those forces appear set to retreat during 2010. The tax breaks are slated to end by midyear. And – in a move that's potentially important for interest rates – the Fed has said it will stop buying mortgage bonds within about three months.

The lower interest rates remain, the more buyers can afford to spend when they commit to spending perhaps 30 percent of their income to buy a house. If interest rates rise, it could put downward pressure on home prices, unless the interest-rate rise is offset by rising incomes.

Still a good deal historically

In releasing the numbers Thursday, Mr. Nothaft gave an example of how low rates have been helping home buyers this year. “Based on today's median loan amount of $138,000, monthly principal and interest payments for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage are close to one-third less than a decade ago when rates peaked at 8.6 percent in May 2000."

The rate on a 30-year loan ends the year not far from where it stood a year ago, at 5.10 percent.

Along with official interest rates, another key barometer of the housing market will whether bank lending standards get looser or not. A good interest rate only helps if borrowers can get a loan approval, and lending conditions now are tight. It's a delicate balancing act.

President Obama recently said he wants to make sure regulators get the message to banks that credit should flow to worthy borrowers. But with foreclosures expected to run high in the new year, the banks and regulators are also trying to make sure that they don't dig deeper into a hole of bad loans.

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