There is at least one bright spot for home buyers, sellers, and owners amid the economic mayhem brought on by the novel coronavirus. Mortgage interest rates have fallen to a new record low, a boon to homeowners who may want to refinance and save money, and buyers (if anyone feels like buying a home right now).
Rates have been on a wild ride since this crisis began, and the average for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage hit 3.23% for the week ending April 30, according to Freddie Mac. That’s the lowest it’s been since Freddie Mac began tracking rates in 1971. The average rate was 4.14% a year ago.
The drop may not seem all that substantial, as it’s not even a full percentage point. But the lower rate will save borrowers $132 a month for a $320,000 home (the national median home price) if they made a 20% down payment. That’s $1,584 a year—which adds up over the life of that 30-year loan.
Mortgage rates could continue falling as the pandemic continues wreaking havoc on the economy.
“Rates are not in a hurry to move back up from here,” says Matthew Graham, chief operating officer of Mortgage News Daily. “Unless there is a sudden and significant change in the global economy in response to a sudden and significant development in the fight against coronavirus, we likely haven’t seen the lowest rates yet.”
Those ultralow rates aren’t likely to save the slumping housing market, though.
“In a normal market, that would be great news for buyers,” says realtor.com® Senior Economist George Ratiu. “In today’s market, rates are likely to have little impact.”
More than 30 million people are out of work as businesses across the nation have been forced to temporarily close to stem the spread of COVID-19. Even those that remain functioning have seen their revenue plunge, raising the prospect of more layoffs.
That should give both buyers and sellers pause. Add a severe shortage of properties for sale, with double-digit drops over the past few months, and it’s clear that this year’s spring home-buying season, already well underway, will end up far slower than usual.
Can borrowers snag these low rates?
Though rates have reached record lows, not everyone will be able to snag them. Mortgage rates can fluctuate throughout the day as well as vary quite a bit among lenders—by as much as 0.5%.
Riskier borrowers with lower credit scores, higher debt loads, or lost income due to the crisis may get stuck with higher rates, if they’re granted a loan at all.
“These rates are really available, but the catch is the restrictions are tighter at many lenders for things like lower credit scores … and other risk factors,” says Graham. “These either make for higher rates or flat-out unavailability, depending on the scenario.
Why rates are falling again
As the economy shifted into a downturn in early March, rates reached then-record lows of 3.29% in the week ending March 5. But just two weeks later, they had risen back to 3.65% despite the Federal Reserve slashing mortgage rates to between 0% and 0.25%. They’ve since fluctuated, sometimes multiple times a day.
They’re settling down again, thanks to changes the U.S. government has made to the secondary mortgage market. Lenders typically don’t want to keep a mortgage on their books once it’s made, as that ties up money that could be used to make new loans. So they sell the mortgages, which are bundled together into mortgage-backed securities, to investors in the secondary market.
With so many people out of work and unable to make their mortgage payments, many investors have shied away from these securities, also called mortgage bonds. But Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are now permitted to buy these riskier loans in forbearance. That’s boosting investor confidence in these securities and driving up prices due to demand.
When mortgage bonds prices are up, mortgage rates go down. Hence, the lower rates.
“These low rates are driving higher refinance activity and have modestly helped improve purchase demand from their extremely low levels in mid-April,” Sam Khater, Freddie Mac’s chief economist, said in a statement. “While many people are benefitting from low mortgage rates, it’s important to remember that not all people are able to take advantage of them given the current pandemic.”