WASHINGTON – Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages surged this week to their highest levels in two years, and the rate on the 30-year loan jumped by the most in 26 years.
The increase is evidence that the Federal Reserve's hints that it might slow its bond purchases this year are already affecting consumers. And higher mortgage rates could prompt would-be buyers to act quickly on home purchases before rates rise further.
Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average on the 30-year loan jumped to 4.46 percent. That's up from 3.93 percent last week and is the highest since July 2011. The increase was also the biggest since April 1987.
The rate on the 15-year mortgage rose to 3.50 percent from 3.04 percent last week. That's the highest since August 2011.
Interest rates have jumped after Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said on June 19 that the Fed could slow its bond purchases later this year if the economy strengthens. Since Bernanke's comments, the yield on the 10-year Treasury note has risen to a two-year high. Mortgage rates tend to track the yield on the Treasury note.
Mortgage rates remain low by historical standards. In the short run, a spike in rates could prompt more people to buy homes, giving the housing recovery an added boost. That's because would-be buyers would want to lock in the rates before they rise further.
But if rates continue to climb, at some point buyers might feel priced out.
The impact on buyers' wallets can be seen in just the last few weeks.
One buyer locks in a 3.35 percent rate in early May on a $200,000 mortgage and pays $881 a month, according to Bankrate.com. Another buyer gets a 4.46 percent rate this week and pays $1,008 a month.
The difference: $127 more a month, or $45,720 over the lifetime of the loan. The figures don't include taxes and insurance.
Anthony Geraci, a Cleveland real estate broker-owner, is already seeing more activity in his market.
"People are getting off the fence a little bit more or choosing to buy now instead of choosing to buy three months from now," said Geraci, whose brokerage has 270 agents.
Geraci says a slight increase in rates won't put off buyers immediately because there just aren't enough available homes for sale. Most markets are facing inventory shortages.
"So buyers that find a nice home, no matter what the rates are, are going to move on it," Geraci said. "If there's enough supply, people might sit and wait a little bit and see if the rates come down."
The rise in rates comes a critical time in the housing recovery. Low mortgage rates have helped fuel home sales over the past year. In May, completed sales of previously occupied homes surpassed the 5 million mark for the first time in 3 ½ years.
And the number of people who signed contracts to buy homes leaped last month to the highest level since Dec. 2006, the National Association of Realtors said in a separate report Thursday. That suggests sales will rise even further in the coming months because there is generally a one- to two-month lag between a signed contract and a completed sale.
Rising rates motivated Alex Backus to act two weeks ago and sign a contract on a $365,000, three-bedroom house in the Seattle suburb of Edmonds, Wash.
Backus, 30, had searched listings for two months before signing the contract. He locked in a 30-year loan at a fixed rate of 4.125 percent.
"Seeing that interest rates were starting to come back up, it seemed like now was the time to really start to get serious about buying a home," said Backus, an aerospace engineer.