Mortgage Rates May Go Up, but You Can Deal: Here’s Why

It’s a late-summer nail-biter: The U.S. Federal Reserve will announce its current policy for short-term rates on Thursday, ending weeks of suspense. If you’ve been worrying that the Fed will raise rates and thus ruin your dream of homeownership, well, you’re not alone.

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But higher rates won’t hurt the housing market overall, which should console homeowners watching their equity as well as home buyers concerned about their investment.

The Fed’s target for short-term rates has been zero since December 2008. Since then, the 30-year fixed mortgage rate has averaged between 3.31% and 5.59% on a weekly basis. So when the Fed officially moves away from a zero interest rate policy for short-term rates, whether it happens tomorrow or in a few months, it will mark the beginning of the end of an era: seven years of incredibly low mortgage rates and high affordability.

But interest rates matter less to housing demand than consistently high levels of job creation and household formation. That is, when people are able to get jobs, move out on their own, and create families, they’re likely to want to buy a home. So higher rates—though they may price out some buyers—won’t cause a decline in sales, or a decline in prices.

But that may not help you feel better if you’ve yet to buy and lock in a monthly payment at these historically low rates. If that’s you, have you completely missed out on the party?

No. You will still be able to do well by historical standards.

The affordability index reported by the National Association of Realtors® stood at 151.2 in July. That number basically means that a family earning the median household income could afford to buy 151% of the median-priced homes in the U.S. Yes, the index is down 16% from January when mortgage rates were at their lows for this year. But the index has averaged 125 over the past 44 years. That means you can still get more home for your money than most people have for more than 40 years.

Over that same 44-year period, the average monthly 30-year fixed mortgage rate was over 8%. It was 4.06% on Tuesday.

Does that mean dealing with higher rates will be easy? No, we will have to adjust to the impact. A 50 basis-point increase in rates causes a 6% increase in monthly mortgage payments. (A basis point is 1/100th of a percentage point.) And higher payments cause higher debt-to-income ratios, which typically max out for various mortgage products between 36% and 43%.
How can you still qualify even with higher rates?

Consider a higher down payment. Can you swing it? This could qualify you for a lower rate, but even if it doesn’t, you’d have a lower loan balance, resulting in a lower monthly payment.

Pay a discount point. This would also reduce the applicable rate, and could make economic sense if you intend to stay in the home long enough to recover the cost of that discount point.

Consider hybrid mortgages. These offer lower rates that are fixed for a specified period such as five, seven, or 10 years. Since rates have been so low, most mortgages have been fixed for the duration of the mortgage term. But in periods of higher rates, we usually see more hybrid term mortgages because of the flexibility the lower rates provide.

Consider different mortgage types such as an FHA loan. This offers more flexibility on key ratios for qualified buyers.

Finally, consumers may need to rethink their target prices based on what they can afford with higher rates. That may mean rethinking location, size, or key features. An expert local Realtor® can help you think through trade-offs and home in on what matters most.

Bottom line: This era of low rates was a unique period of economic weakness and poor housing fundamentals. That era is ending, as conditions are much, much better now. Yes, that does mean that affordability will be lower, but we are still in good territory by historical standards, and today looks pretty good compared to the future for locking in prices and rates.

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