Drop in mortgage rates trigger race to buy, refinance

Tumbling interest rates are setting off a mortgage-refinancing scramble among homeowners and pulling undecided buyers into the market. Loan terms for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages fell to 4.63% from 4.89% for the week ending March 20, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reported Wednesday. That's the lowest in the history of the survey, which began in 1990. Refinancing accounted for 78.5% of all mortgage applications last week.

Applications are up in part because of a federal refinancing program through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae that is part of the Obama administration's housing rescue plan. Rates have been driven down by the Federal Reserve's decision last week to buy up to $300 billion of long-term government bonds and $750 billion in mortgage-backed securities held by Fannie and Freddie.

The falling rates are jolting homeowners and buyers:

•Homeowners who had been waiting to refinance say they're now getting great deals. Nancy Hemenway, 58, of Arlington, Va., is closing on a refinance in a couple of weeks.

"We were watching the rates and didn't see how they could go much lower," says Hemenway, executive director of a non-profit. "We thought there might be a problem because banks weren't lending, but that didn't happen at all. We just filled out some paperwork and faxed it."

•Low prices on foreclosed homes are luring buyers into the market. Up to 45% of existing home sales in February were distressed properties, according to a report this week by National Association of Realtors.

Michael McCullough, a public relations specialist in Atlanta, is closing today on a 3,000-square-foot home with a large yard and four bedrooms. "My wife and I have no business buying this large a home, but we can afford it because it was a foreclosure, and we secured a 4.6%, 30-year fixed" loan, says McCullough. "There are tons of deals out there."

•Realtors such as Leslie McDonnell in Libertyville, Ill., are seeing sudden pickups in business. Enticed by low prices and rates, McDonnell has bought several properties herself this year. "We've definitely seen an impact. Things have gotten busier for sure," McDonnell says. Low rates "are compelling people into action. I do feel like we've hit bottom."

Overall mortgage applications last week were 20% above their year-ago level, according to the MBA.

By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY  {click here to read entire article}

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