All good things come to an end—even low mortgage interest rates. They've been steadily rising and are poised to climb even higher this year.
When they do, the cost of buying a home will rise as well. This could make the challenges of today's buyer's market even worse for some prospective purchasers—particularly first-time buyers, having to settle for smaller abodes, fixer-uppers (in the real sense, not the TV sense), and homes farther out where real estate is cheaper.
Some may even be priced out of the market altogether thanks to a toxic combination of soaring home prices and increasing mortgage rates.
After hitting historic lows, average mortgage rates have now reached their highest levels in more than four years. They hit an average 4.43% for 30-year, fixed-rate loans as of March 1, according to Freddie Mac data. This was the highest they've been since Jan. 9, 2014, when they were an average 4.51%.
They're expected to go up even more after the Federal Reserve raises short-term interest rates. The new Fed chairman, Jerome H. Powell, says the Fed is likely to gradually increase them this year. It is expected to bump up rates at least three times this year, in 0.25% increments, beginning this month.
And while short-term rates and mortgage rates are separate, mortgage rates usually follow any increases from the Fed.
"For the bulk of buyers, it's not going to kill their decision to purchase a home. If anything, it will get them off the fence by creating a sense of urgency," says Rick Palacios Jr., director of research at John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Higher rates are "a kick in the pants for you to start thinking seriously [about buying]."
Even a fraction of a percentage point rise quickly adds up. On a $300,000 house with a 30-year fixed mortgage and 20% down payment, the difference between 4% and 5% is $142 a month. That's more than $51,000 during the life of the mortgage.
"Buyers thought they could wait forever because rates were going to stay low forever," says Palacios. "They're starting to realize if they're going to buy they should probably buy now."
How mortgage rates differ from federal short-term interest rates
It’s a common misconception that mortgage and interest rates are married to each other. It’s more like they’re related. Over the past two decades, they’ve differed by as much as 5% and have been as close as 0.5%. And that's because mortgage rates are more closely tied to the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond market.
Mortgage rates tend to follow bonds because both may be considered safer places than the stock market to park one's money. But mortgage rates are usually the inverse of bond markets. Translation: The greater the demand for bonds—which tends to happen during economic, political, or market distress—the lower the mortgage rates may be.
Steady economic growth along with relatively low inflation and interest rates has helped push bond rates down for years. However, a widening U.S. deficit and higher inflation could bring them up. Normally, that would help keep mortgage rates low. But there are other factors such as changes to tax codes, the overall state of the economy, and the rise in short-term Federal interest rates that can also affect mortgage rates, says Andrew Hanson, an economics professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Hence, the bell is slowly tolling on historically low mortgage rates.
It's important to note that mortgage rates are still low. They averaged around 7% from the 1990s through the financial crisis, falling from a high of 18.63% on Oct. 9, 1981.They dropped below 5% for the first time in March 2009, before bottoming out at 3.1% on Nov. 21, 2012.
And while they may not return to the 3% range anytime soon, it's also unlikely they'll go into the double digits.
"We’re not going back to the levels of 10 years ago," in the mid-5% to mid-6% range, says Len Kiefer, deputy chief economist for Freddie Mac. "Too much has shifted economically. There's a lot of pressure on long-term rates to keep them from moving too rapidly."
First-time home buyers have the most to fear from rising mortgage rates
Overall, about 44% of prospective home buyers say they will have to settle for a cheaper home—smaller, or maybe farther away from their jobs—as a result of the rate increases, according to a recent realtor.com® survey.
But first-time buyers and those on the tightest budgets are likely to be affected the most. Even a 1 percentage point rise in rates would mean 5% of all buyers would no longer be able to qualify for a $300,000 mortgage, according to a 2016 John Burns study. (Rates were only 3.47% when the study was published.)
"Every time the interest rates go up, you eliminate a group of people who can no longer afford to buy a house," says Don Frommeyer, a mortgage broker at Marine Bank in Indianapolis. "Some people may have to rent for a period of time until they make more money—or buy a smaller house."
And despite the increases, the housing shortage and soaring prices are only likely to get worse.
That's because of the big backlog of buyers. Many folks held off from purchasing during the recession because they were worried about their job stability or couldn't afford to buy. Now with a stronger economy, they're entering the market in droves. Many older millennials are beginning to have families or expand their families and simply need the extra space.
"If you have a backdrop of accelerating job growth, wages rising, confidence booming, and the stock market improving, [home sales are] going to do just fine," says Palacios of John Burns.
These same reasons, along with rising mortgage rates, are also powerful inducements for current homeowners to stay put. Instead of trading up to nicer abodes, many are choosing to make improvements or renovations to their existing homes instead. This means there are even fewer entry-level abodes on the market for first-time buyers.
So folks are going to have to make some sacrifices—including dealing with longer commutes.
“We call it driving for dollars,” says real estate professional Doug Hopkins, co-owner of Realty Executives Phoenix. “How far can you move out and still get what you’re looking for? How close to the city center can you afford to be?”
Buying a home? Consider locking down your rate
Home buyers worried about rising rates may want to consider locking in their rate with their mortgage provider. This means that the rate is guaranteed once an offer is submitted through the closing. Usually this is good only through a previously specified amount of time, so the process can't drag on too long, and there can't be any changes to the application.
The downside, however, is that not all rate locks are free. Ones for less than 60 days are often free, but can cost several hundred dollars. And if there are any unforeseen delays in the closing, and the rate needs to be extended further, it can cost buyers much more. (The exact figure depends on the individual mortgage lender and the size of the loan.)
Another downside: If rates do fall, buyers won't be eligible for them.
But rate locks do protect buyers from higher-than-expected monthly mortgage payments if those rates do go up.
“You should be paying close attention to what is going on in the marketplace, because those rates can move pretty quickly in a short amount of time,” says Freddie Mac's Kiefer. “So a rate lock is something people might want to consider.”