Luxury Sales Bounce Back


Original Post Date: May 28, 2010

By: Juliet Chung and James Hagerty

For years, Jennifer Metz and her husband John yearned for a bigger home in San Francisco. Three months ago, the couple started looking, figuring that in this shaky economy, their $3 million budget should provide them a pick of attractive homes and accommodating sellers.

They were wrong. Hours after seeing a 5,000-square-foot fixer-upper in Presidio Heights with an asking price around $2.7 million, the Metzes put in a bid—and lost. Soon after, they made another offer on a four-bedroom in Russian Hill. Their bid was rejected.

Last week, the Metzes rushed over to a large, dilapidated home in Pacific Heights that needed a lot of work but was asking the (relatively) low price of $2.25 million. The Metzes put in their over-ask bid the next day, but lost that one too: There were nine offers; the winning bid was $2.56 million.

“It’s frustrating,” says Ms. Metz, a 44-year-old stay-at-home mom whose husband works in finance. “You think you put in a good offer but, no.”

After a near-disastrous 2009, the luxury market appears to be making a comeback, driven by growing buyer confidence, improved financing conditions and more-realistic seller pricing. Despite the housing downturn, attractively priced homes in some of the nation’s most coveted neighborhoods are selling, sometimes fast and sometimes with multiple offers. Nationwide, sales of homes selling for $2 million to $5 million in the first quarter totaled 2,461, up 32% from a year before, says CoreLogic.

That sales are up from last year shouldn’t come as a big surprise. The shock of the financial panic in the fall of 2008 left many potential buyers too nervous to bid, and those who were willing to wade in found it hard to get financing. But a study for The Wall Street Journal by MDA DataQuick, a real-estate data provider, found that in some areas of the country, sales of homes over $2 million in the first quarter were actually on par with the levels of 2005, the peak year for existing-home sales volume nationwide.

In San Francisco, 49 homes sold for $2 million or more in this year’s first quarter, according to the study, compared to 47 in 2005. In Manhattan, there were 402 sales of $2 million or more in the latest quarter, compared with 311 in the first quarter of 2005, according to the appraisal firm Miller Samuel Inc. Other areas with strong rebounds included New York’s Hamptons, Menlo Park, Calif., and Beverly Hills.

Even a couple of troubled housing markets experienced a strong uptick. In Las Vegas, there were 21 such sales in the first quarter, up from 15 in the first quarter of 2005, according to DataQuick. In Miami, 21 such sales of $2 million or more were recorded in the first quarter, up from 15 last year and close to the 23 that sold in that time five years earlier.

Of course, many markets including Greenwich, Conn. and parts of New Jersey are still ailing. Brokers say pricey homes in outlying suburbs are more likely to sit than sell. Miami-Dade County still has enough homes priced at $2 million or more to last 41 months at the current sales pace, though down from 116 months a year earlier, says Ron Shuffield, president of EWM Realtors, a large local brokerage.

The recent stock market tumble could unravel the turnaround. Unlike the rest of the housing market, which is driven largely by employment trends, housing analysts say high-end buyers are much more sensitive to changes in the stock market, which for the first quarter was helping them feel even wealthier. “If the markets don’t recover soon, it will scare people” and hurt demand for high-end homes, says Kenneth Rosen, chairman of the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the meantime, some high-end renovators are making quick sales. Koby Kempel bought a colonial in Brookline, a posh suburb of Boston, last year for $1.45 million. He raised the ceilings, rebuilt the interior, expanded the home by about 50% and added a heated garage. The six-bedroom home was listed by Mona Wiener of Hammond Residential on a Friday in early May and was under contract the next day for the asking price of nearly $3.5 million.

Back in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, a four-bedroom home on Broadway, with a spa and views of the Golden Gate Bridge, was renovated by Gregory Malin. It went on the market in late January and sold two weeks later for $13.5 million, compared with the $14 million asking price. The listing agent, Val Steele of Sotheby’s International Realty, says the sale, at $2,146 per square foot, marked the first time a home in San Francisco topped $2,000 a square foot since early September 2008.

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More Bank-Owned Homes Likely to Hit the Market


Original Post Date: May 28, 2010

By: James R Hagerty

It’s a bit like guessing how many pennies are in a gallon jug at the state fair, but housing analysts keep trying to count how many foreclosed homes banks and mortgage investors own.

Why should we care? Unlike at the state fair, there is no prize for guessing right. Still, if we can track the number of these REO (“real estate owned”) homes, we can get some sense of how banks and others are doing in their efforts to dispose of the properties and how much longer they will be weighing on the housing market.

The good news is that two of the leading contenders in this guesstimating game–Tom Lawler, an independent housing economist and gentleman farmer in Leesburg, Va., and Robert Tayon, an analyst at Barclays Capital in New York–have been comparing their methods recently and learning from each other. Both are in the same ballpark and both say the REO count is on the rise.

Mr. Lawler estimates there were 574,000 one- to four-family REO homes at the end of the first quarter, up from 518,000 at the end of 2009 but well below a peak of 668,000 in the third quarter of 2008. More modest (honest?) than most economists, Mr. Lawler describes his estimates as “crude” and “a work in progress.” He figures his tally is too low–he can’t find good data on all of the thousands of REO owners– but still “indicative” of the trend.

Mr. Tayon of Barclays estimates that REOs totaled 522,000 in March, up from 479,000 at the end of 2009 but below the peak of 688,000 in September 2008.

After soaring in 2008, the REO total shrank for most of 2009 as foreclosure-prevention efforts slowed the flow of defaulted loans toward resolution and investors rushed to buy what they saw as bargains in hard-hit areas such as Phoenix and Las Vegas. Now, as banks and other loan servicers work their way through the backlog of loan-modification applicants and reject many of them, the REO count is rising again. Mr. Tayon expects it to peak at 538,000 in August 2011 before starting to decline gradually.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two of the biggest holders of REO, both expect their REO inventories to increase in the next few quarters, Mr. Lawler says.

The expected rise in REO supply will “challenge” housing markets in areas with high concentrations of foreclosures, Mr. Lawler adds. But he doesn’t think the effect on prices will be as severe as it was in late 2008 and early 2009, when loan servicers dumped huge amounts of property on the market.

There are still plenty of struggling borrowers at risk of losing their homes. The Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade group, last week reported that 14% of mortgage loans on one-to-four-unit homes were 30 days or more delinquent or in the foreclosure process as of March 31. That represents about 7.3 million households. The rate was 12% a year earlier. At the same time, fewer people have fallen behind in recent months as the economy has improved.

Those who want to guess how many REOs will be in the jug two years from now will have to take a view on whether the economy is going to produce enough jobs to create demand for all those houses.

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How low can they go? 15-year fixed rates set new record


Original Post Date: May 27, 2009

By: E. Scott Reckard

Anyone out there still have the old-fashioned notion to retire their mortgage sooner rather than later?

Homeowners able to refinance were finding lenders offering 15-year fixed-rate mortgages at an average of 4.21% this week, according to Freddie Mac — the lowest rate since the mortgage company started tracking the 15-year loan in 1991.

Heavy demand for 10-year U.S. Treasury bonds has pushed their yield to the lowest level of the year. That’s the typical benchmark for fixed mortgages — and boy have rates followed, with Freddie Mac reporting the average for a 30-year fixed home loan falling to 4.78%.

That’s down from 4.84% a week earlier and not far from the record low of 4.71% set back in December.

Since the Freddie Mac survey reflects what lenders are offering, not actual contracts for loans, the rates obtained by well-qualified borrowers are often slightly lower, experts say.

Freddie Mac gathers information about rates available to well-qualified borrowers who make a down payment of at least 20% or have equivalent equity in their homes if they are refinancing. The borrowers in this week’s survey would have paid 0.7% of the loan balance to the lenders in upfront fees and discount points, Freddie Mac said.

Last year, the experts expected residential mortgage rates would be rising by now, as federal housing and home-loan support programs expired, home prices stabilized and inflation became more of a concern.

Then the latest default scare reared its head — this time involving not U.S. home loans but the debt loads carried by Greece and other weaker European economies. And just like that, the flood of money began to the safe haven of debt issued by Uncle Sam.

“Just when we thought we were finally experiencing [the anticipated rate increase] we got the PIGS,” said Stew Larsen, head of mortgage banking operations for Bank of the West, referring to an acronym for the nations Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain.

For those hungry for lower rates, is this the last big chance to head to the trough?

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New home sales jump 14.8% in April


Original Post Date: May 27, 2010

By: Alejandro Lazo

Sales of new homes surged 14.8% in April from March, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday, as an expiring federal tax credit for buyers helped fuel activity. Without the popular incentive, many analysts are expecting sales to slump in months to come.

“Clearly, government handouts have had their desired effect: They juiced home sales and helped builders clear out even more inventory,” said Michael D. Larson, an interest rate and housing analyst with Weiss Research. “We’re also going to see yet another hangover in the coming couple of months due to the tax credit’s expiration, with sales rates dropping off.”

New single-family houses sold at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 504,000 units in April, the Commerce Department said. That was 47.8% above the April 2009 pace.

New home sales in April were up 21.7% in the West from March. Sales rose 10.8% in the South and 31.6% in the Midwest but were flat in the Northeast.

Patrick Newport, U.S. economist with IHS Global Insight, said he was optimistic that factors other than the federal tax credit of up to $8,000 for first-time buyers and $6,500 for current homeowners that expired April 30 were at work.

He noted that a quarter of the new homes sold last month hadn’t been started and just under a third were being built when sold. That means many may not be completed by June 30, when deals must close to qualify for the federal incentive. That was a “sign that many new homes are being bought by people who want to live in new homes, not by individuals looking to take advantage of a tax credit,” he said.

Because the Commerce Department reports sales of new homes when contracts are signed — unlike sales of previously owned homes, which are reported when deals close — last month probably was the peak of any boost from the credits.

The median price of new houses sold in April was $198,400, and the inventory of new homes for sale at the end of April was 211,000, representing a five-month supply.

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Refi madness: Surge continues as rates edge lower still


Original Post Date: May 26, 2010

By: E. Scott Reckard

With mortgage rates near record lows, homeowners are applying to refinance their loans at the highest rate in seven months, the Mortgage Bankers Assn. said Wednesday.

The volume of refinancings jumped 17% last week as the average contract rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage sank to 4.80% from 4.83% a week earlier, the mortgage trade group said. It was the highest volume since  October, according to the group’s weekly report on home loan applications.

Refinance applications had begun to surge two weeks earlier as global investors worried about the European debt crisis fled to the perceived safety of U.S. Treasury securities. That drove down the yield on Treasuries and mortgage rates followed, as they generally do.

Although the latest surge is powerful, it doesn’t compare with the tidal wave of refinancings that took place after December 2008, when the Federal Reserve, battling the fierce recession, first lowered its benchmark interest rate to nearly zero.

That burst of replacement home lending continued as rates bumped lower until September 2009, when 30-year fixed-rate loans dropped below the 5% threshold for the first time in decades, recalled Stew Larsen, head of mortgage banking for Bank of the West.

There are still plenty of homeowners with higher-rate loans who have never refinanced despite several opportunities since then to lock in rates starting with a 4, he said.

“Many of our customers now feel they missed a couple of other windows,” Larsen said.

In contrast to the latest refinance boom, applications to purchase homes fell further after a sharp decline the week before. The refinance share of mortgage activity was at 72% of total applications, up from 68% the previous week and the highest refinance in the survey since December 2009.

Industry observers said any home purchasers who could do so completed their transactions by the end of April, when federal tax credits expired for people buying houses.

It will be worth watching to see if purchase lending picks up again without the federal stimulus to spur sales.

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Short Sales improve at a “snail’s pace”


By Marilyn Kalfus

Original Post Date: May 18, 2010

More real estate agents are learning to transact short sales, and more homes are selling that way — for less than what’s owed on the mortgage, as long as the lender approves —  instead of going into foreclosure.

But a real estate agent who regularly focuses on the big picture in Orange County says it’s not looking good. There’s improvement in moving short sales, he says, but it’s happening at “a snail’s pace.”

Steve Thomas of Altera Real Estate, who does a bi-weekly analysis of the Orange County housing market, writes:

“There is nothing more frustrating than short sales in today’s market.  The name should be changed to ‘uncertain’ sales and there is nothing ’short’ about short sales.

“Some short sales are grossly underpriced and receive multiple offers above the list price.  Yet, the final agreed upon price may still be too low, jeopardizing the lender’s approval of a short sale.

“In a short sale, there are three approvals that need to take place. First, the buyer must qualify to purchase the home. Second, the seller must have a true hardship, no money secretly tucked away, in order to qualify for a short sale. Last, the home must appraise for close to the agreed upon price between the buyer and the seller.

“A lender is not in a rush to accept a short sale payoff where the home is selling for $25,000 below the real market price. There are so many obstacles to putting a short sale together, it will make your head spin. Outstanding homeowner association dues, outstanding property tax payments, collection agencies, attorneys, first trust deed holders, second trust deed holders, all potentially stand in the way to closing a short sale.”

He says as of last week there were 4,311 short sales pending — 57% of all pending sales in Orange County. But only 627 short sales closed last month.

At that rate, he says, it will take some 7 months to deplete the pending short sales, and there are an additional 2,415 short sales listed.

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Lenders likely to order second, last-minute credit report before closing on a mortgage


By Kenneth R. Harney

Original Post Date: May 16, 2010

Changes taking effect June 1 are part of Fannie Mae’s ‘loan quality initiative’ to cut down slipshod underwriting and fraud by borrowers.

Reporting from Washington.

If you’re thinking about applying for a home mortgage this year, here’s some important news: Beginning June 1, your lender is likely to order a second full credit screening immediately before closing.

The last-minute credit report will be designed to find out whether you’ve obtained — or even shopped for — new debt between the date of your loan application and the closing. If you’ve made applications for credit of any type — for furnishings and appliances for the new house, a car, landscaping, a home equity line, a new credit card — the closing could be put on hold pending additional research by the lender.

If you’ve taken out new loans that are sizable enough to affect the debt-to-income ratio calculations used in your original mortgage approval, the deal could fall through. The added debt load could render you ineligible for the mortgage because you suddenly appear unable to handle the payments without a strain on your household budget.

The June 1 changes are part of a new effort by mortgage giant Fannie Mae to cut down on slipshod underwriting by lenders and frauds by borrowers. Fannie’s so-called “loan quality initiative” will require lenders not only to pull two credit reports for each mortgage transaction but to perform additional verifications of borrower occupancy plans for the property, Social Security numbers and Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, among other changes.

“There’s an almost irresistible urge” for many mortgage borrowers to spend, said Don Unger, chief executive of Advantage Credit Inc. of Evergreen, Colo. “The lender says, ‘OK, you’re approved for the loan,’ and you immediately think about shopping for all the things you need for the house.”

Borrowers may go to a retailer and put in a credit application. In the past, that might not have raised an eyebrow, or even been detected. But under the new double-check policy, when the application shows up as a “hard” or borrower-initiated inquiry on a credit report, Unger said, the lender is going to have to contact the merchant and determine whether credit was extended, in what amount and how this might affect the applicant’s home-financing transaction.

Marc Savitt, president of the National Assn. of Independent Housing Professionals and a mortgage broker in Martinsburg, W.Va., says it’s not an uncommon scenario. “Most often the new debt involves furniture or other goods for the house,” Savitt said. “However, we have seen debt for new cars and other major purchases.”

Terry Clemans, executive director of the National Credit Reporting Assn., recalls one case where home buyers “went out and gorged on $40,000 worth of new furniture and all types of stuff” after their loan approval — resulting in monthly payments far beyond what they could afford. Under the new policy, they’d probably be shot down before closing.

Fannie Mae spokesperson Janis Smith said lenders “will have to look for things like new credit accounts, increased credit lines, increased balances on existing accounts, undisclosed or newly recorded liens, second mortgages — anything that may have changed since initial application that might impact a borrower’s debt-to-income ratio.”

As a practical matter, some lenders are likely to ask their credit-reporting vendors to perform the investigations when new debts or inquiries pop up on borrowers’ files. Fannie Mae’s instructions say that “lenders must determine that all debts of the borrower incurred or closed up to and concurrent with the closing” are considered in the final loan analysis.

Unger, however, said all this may not be as straightforward as it sounds. For example, if the credit report is pulled immediately before closing to comply with the “up to and concurrent” requirement, there may not be sufficient time to check out inquiries — especially those where no actual drawdown of debt has been reported to the national credit bureaus. He also questioned whether entire loan packages might need to be re-underwritten — a time-consuming process — based on credit data discovered at the 11th hour.

How should home buyers and refinancers prepare for the new credit-check procedures? Lenders and credit reporting company executives say everybody needs to follow just one basic rule: abstinence. Between your application for a mortgage and the date of closing — which might be a span of 45 to 60 days or more — resist spending.

And don’t apply for new credit unless you discuss it in advance with your lender and get a green light.

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Housing Scene: Home purchase negotiations shouldn’t end at price


By Lew Sichelman

May 16, 2010

Reporting from Washington

Buyers and sellers who haggle over price alone could be leaving a lot on the table.

The purchase price is only one part of the transaction. Everything in a real-estate deal is open to negotiation, and sometimes price isn’t the most important factor.

A buyer might be willing to pay a little more to move into the house within 30 days, for example, instead of waiting until the seller finds another place to live. Similarly, a seller might take less if he could stay longer.

Which appliances stay with the house can sometimes be a sticking point that makes or breaks a deal. Whether or not the seller will help pay the buyer’s closing costs is another. If the seller provides a so-called “warranty” is another.

Here are some of the bargaining points each side should consider:

• Earnest money. Buyers are usually asked to attach a check to an offer. But such a deposit also can be used to compensate the seller if the purchaser withdraws from the deal without a legally suitable reason.

Consequently, the seller should seek as large a deposit as possible. It may provide some bargaining room later if you need it. And besides, you can always go lower if a good offer presents itself.

If the closing is set far into the future — say, anywhere from three to six months — you might want to demand an even larger deposit because your home will, in effect, be off the market for that prolonged period.

Buyers, on the other hand, want to be certain the full return of the deposit is tied to contingencies in the contract.

• Financing. Unless they are for all cash, almost all offers are predicated upon the buyer’s ability to secure funding. But the seller should be certain the financing contingency is based on reasonable economic conditions.

A financing clause is usually in two parts: 1) that the buyer secures funding within a certain number of days and 2) that the mortgage rate will be no more than a certain percentage. In each instance, your agent should be able to advise you about what is reasonable for current economic conditions.

But seller beware: Make sure that the buyer applies for a mortgage right away so that if he can’t qualify, the house can be put back on the market without too much time being lost. Consequently, the timing portion of this condition shouldn’t be too long, certainly no longer than a few weeks at the most.

Also, if the rate portion of this contingency is set too low, the house might be under contract but the contract may be all but worthless because there’s no way any buyer will find a rate that far below the market.

If the offer is for cash, the buyer may want to seek a somewhat lower price because the sale is all but guaranteed to go through.

• Backups. Even though a seller has accepted an offer, he should entertain others as backup contracts in case the first one goes sour. But to give yourself the opportunity to select the next-best offer, or hunt for even better offers, don’t accept other contracts in any particular order.

• Inspections. As a marketing tool, sellers sometimes hire an independent third-party inspector to give their homes a clean bill of health. But it is usually the buyer who wants the house looked over from top to bottom. That way, if the water heater is on its deathbed or the heat exchanger is cracked, they can use the inspector’s findings to renegotiate.

Also, just in case the findings are not to his liking, the buyer will want his deposit returned promptly and in full.

At the same time, the seller should require that the inspection be done promptly so the property is not put in limbo.

• Closing costs. Sellers often pay part — and sometimes all — of their buyers’ escrow fees, things like a title search, termite inspection, survey and the like. The exact amount or percentage is usually dictated by local custom. But it’s all open to negotiation.

• Fixtures. Items such as wall-to-wall carpeting, window treatments and ranges are not part of the structure. But they are attached to it so they are generally considered to be fixtures that convey with the property. But these and plenty of other items can be key bargaining tools. And whatever you agree on, make sure it is spelled out clearly in the contract.

The seller will want to list what does not convey with title as “not included in the sale,” and the buyer will want to list everything that stays with the property.

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Home Price Reductions Jump 10% as Homebuyer Tax Credit Expires


Original Post Date: May 12, 2010

By: Brittany Dunn

Marking a 10 percent increase from April, 22 percent of listings on the market as of May 1, 2010 experienced at least one price reduction, San Francisco-based Trulia reported Wednesday.

According to Trulia, the total dollar amount slashed from home prices was $25 billion, and the average discount for price-reduced homes continued to hold steady at 10 percent off the original listing price.

“With more than a year of the federal government’s involvement, we are now re-entering the free market system. As we readjust to the free market, we expect to hit

turbulence in some markets,” said Pete Flint, Trulia co-founder and CEO. “We won’t know the true severity of the tax credit expiration until the conclusion of the peak home buying season in the summer months. Only then will we have a better sense if the U.S. housing market can stand on its own two feet.”

Trulia said many metro areas experienced major increases in reductions. The most significant was seen in Omaha where price reductions surged 62 percent. San Diego was the next highest, posting a 39 percent increase in price reductions.

In addition, Trulia said 12 of the top 50 cities across the U.S. saw price reduction levels at 30 percent or more, up from just five cities the previous month. Price reductions were the highest in Minneapolis, where 40 percent of home listings experienced at least one price cut.

The last time Minneapolis reached the 40 percent mark was in December 2009. According to Trulia, no other major U.S. city has reached a level this high since it began tracking home price reductions in April 2009.

Price reduction levels for luxury homes—those listed at $2 million or above—continued to hold steady from last month with an average discount of 14 percent, Trulia said.

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Mortgage Rates Fall Again, Hit Lowest Level of the Year: Freddie Mac


Orginal Post Date: May 13, 2010

By Brittany Dunn

Mortgage rates continued to inch down for the week ending May 13, 2010, hitting the lowest level seen so far this year, Freddie Mac reported Thursday.

According to Freddie Mac’s Primary Mortgage Market Survey, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 4.93 percent with an average 0.7 point this week, down from last week’s average of 5 percent but still higher than a year ago at this time when rates averaged 4.86 percent. Freddie Mac said 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have not been this low since the week ending December 10, 2009, when rates averaged 4.81 percent.

Freddie Mac also reported a decline in 15-year fixed-rate mortgages, which averaged 4.3 percent with an average 0.6 point this week. Rates fell from 4.36 percent last week and were notably lower than this same week last year when 15-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 4.52 percent. According to Freddie Mac, the last time rates were this low was the week ending December 3, 2009, when 15-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 4.27 percent.

The story was the same for adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs). This week, 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid ARMs averaged 3.95 percent with an average 0.6 point, down from last week’s average of 3.97 percent. Freddie Mac said

this is the lowest rate recorded since it began tracking 5-year ARMs in January 2005.

In addition, 1-year Treasury-indexed ARMs averaged 4.02 percent with an averaged 0.6 point this week, falling from 4.07 percent last week. According to Freddie Mac, 1-year ARMs have not been this low since the week ending November 4, 2004, when rates averaged 4 percent.

A separate report released by Bankrate showed the same trend of declining rates. The tracking company said the week-to-week drop was due to worries over European debt which rattled financial markets and caused rates to fall.

“Once again mortgage shoppers were direct beneficiaries as nervous investors equate to lower mortgage rates,” Bankrate said in its report. “Furthermore, this cloud of global economic uncertainty likely gives the Federal Reserve even more latitude to hold the line on interest rates, so mortgage rates will stay a little lower, a little longer, than what was forecast just a few weeks ago.”

According to Bankrate’s weekly national survey, 30-year fixed rates mortgaged averaged 5.07 percent with an average 0.42 point, down from 5.12 percent last week. In addition, Bankrate said 15-year fixed-rate mortgages stepped down to 4.45 percent with an average 0.39 point, falling from last week’s average of 4.49 percent.

The tracking company also reported a decline in ARMs. According to its survey, the average rate for 3-year ARMs dropped to 4.44 percent from 4.52 percent, and 5-year ARMs sank to 4.27 percent from 4.31 percent.

Complementing Bankrate’s survey is its weekly Rate Trend Index, in which mortgage experts predict which way rates are headed over the next week. Nearly two-thirds of the panelists – 64 percent – said mortgage rates will remain more or less unchanged over the next seven days. Of those remaining, 29 percent forecast an increase in rates, and just 7 percent said rates will decrease even further.

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