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WASHINGTON (AP) — Mortgage rates sank to the lowest level in decades this week, pushed down by the weak economy and the Federal Reserve's move to help lift the recovery by purchasing government debt.
Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac says the average rate for 30-year fixed loans this week was 4.44 percent, down from 4.49 percent last week. That's the lowest since Freddie Mac began tracking rates in 1971.
The average rate on the 15-year fixed loan dropped to 3.92 percent, down from 3.95 percent last week and the lowest on record.
Rates have fallen since spring and the government's July jobs report has investors worried about the country slipping back into recession. They are shifting more money into the safety of Treasury bonds, lowering their yields. Mortgage rates tend to track those yields.
And the Federal Reserve is pushing those yields down even further. The central bank said Tuesday it would buy Treasurys to help aid the recovery, using the proceeds from debt and mortgage-backed securities it bought from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
That move alone will not be enough to push average rates down to 4 percent, said Bob Walters, chief economist at Quicken Loans. But rates that low are still a possibility if the economic outlook worsens even further. If investors became convinced that a renewed recession is likely, they would move even more money away from stocks and into bonds and mortgage debt. That would send rates down further.
"The silver lining to a bad economy is that interest rates fall," Walters said. "If you can lower your debt burden by refinancing, that's great."
Low rates have failed to spark home sales, which have plummeted this summer as the economy remains weak and credit standards stay tight. Applications to refinance home loans have grown but remain well short of a massive refinancing boom.
Overall home loan applications rose only 0.6 percent last week from a week earlier, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the number of U.S. homes lost to foreclosure surged in July, another sign lenders are moving quicker to take back properties from homeowners behind in payments.
Lenders repossessed 92,858 properties last month, up 9 percent from June and an increase of 6 percent from July 2009, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said Thursday.
Banks have stepped up repossessions this year to clear out the backlog of bad loans. July makes the eighth month in a row that the pace of homes lost to foreclosure has increased on an annual basis.
Meanwhile, homeowners who are falling behind on their payments are being allowed to stay in their homes longer because lenders are reluctant to add to the glut of foreclosed homes on the market.
The number of properties receiving an initial default notice — the first step in the foreclosure process — rose 1 percent last month from June, but tumbled 28 percent versus July last year, RealtyTrac said.
Initial defaults have fallen on an annual basis the past six months.
The latest data reflect a foreclosure crisis that continues to drag on as many homeowners struggle to make their monthly payments amid high unemployment, slow job growth and an uneven rebound in home prices.
Economic woes, such as unemployment or reduced income, are now the main catalysts for foreclosures. Initially, lax lending standards were the culprit, but homeowners with good credit who took out conventional, fixed-rate loans are now the fastest growing group of foreclosures.
Lenders are offering a variety of programs to help homeowners modify their loans, but their success rates vary. Hundreds of thousands of homeowners can't qualify or fall back into default.
The Obama administration has rolled out numerous attempts to tackle the foreclosure crisis but has made only a small dent in the problem. More than 40 percent, or about 530,000 homeowners, have fallen out of the administration's main effort to assist those facing foreclosure.