One of the few silver linings for real estate in the middle of this devastating coronavirus pandemic has been record-low mortgage interest rates. And housing experts predict those ultralow rates will likely fall even further—venturing into the unprecedented 2% range.
That could give the flagging housing market—deeply hampered by state and local lockdowns, uncertainty about COVID-19, and a sputtering economy—a much needed boost. Lower rates equate to lower monthly housing mortgage payments, meaning many buyers will suddenly be able to afford homes with higher price tags.
"We expect mortgage rates to stay low and possibly slip lower," says realtor.com Chief Economist Danielle Hale. "We’ll flirt with the 3% threshold for a while before we go below it.”
Although some lenders are offering rates in the high 2% range, rates averaged 3.28% for 30-year fixed-rate loans for the week ending May 14, according to the most recent Freddie Mac data. That's more than a full percentage point lower than the 4.61% rate for the week ending May 17 last year. That difference could shave hundreds of dollars off some monthly mortgage payments and tens of thousands of dollars off the life of a 30-year loan.
Hale anticipates that rates will fall to 2.9% by the end of the year. That's similar to Fannie Mae's May forecast. The housing giant expects rates to remain in the low 3% range for the rest of the year—and then fall to 2.9% for all of 2021.Meanwhile, average, daily rates dropped to a new low of 3.09% on May 15, according to Mortgage News Daily.
"Of course, no one can be sure what to expect, because it really depends on how the battle against coronavirus unfolds," Matthew Graham, chief operating officer of Mortgage News Daily, said in an email. "In a situation where people are able to return to work sooner than expected and in greater numbers, rates might not [fall much lower]. On the other hand, the more negative economic outcomes would suggest 2.5% by the end of the year."
Borrowers can already get a mortgage in the 2% range
Today's buyers can already score rates in the 2% range—that is, if they know where to look.
Borrowers seeking a 15-year fixed-rate loan or an adjustable-rate mortgage, where rates fluctuate over the life of the loan, can already enjoy rates in the 2% range. But their monthly payments are likely to be higher as the loan is condensed into a shorter time period.
Those seeking standard, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages can also get in on the action.
Chase Home Lending was offering buyers rates in the high 2% for purchases in some parts of the country as of Wednesday afternoon.
On May 12, national lender United Wholesale Mortgage unveiled a new loan program where folks purchasing a house or homeowners refinancing their loans are guaranteed rates of between 2.5% and 2.99%. Folks with higher credit scores and stronger credit profiles are more likely to qualify for the lower rates.
About 10,000 people inquired about the low rates on Thursday, says Mat Ishbia, CEO of UWM. The national lender bills itself as the largest purchase mortgage lender and the second-largest lender nationally, making $108 billion in mortgages last year. Unlike at brick-and-mortar banks, its loans are available only through mortgage brokers.
To be eligible, borrowers must qualify for a conventional loan backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac for a primary or vacation home. Investment homes are not included in the program.
"It's a great way to get the economy and the [home] purchases started," says Ishbia. "With the pandemic across America ... there's a lot of pent-up demand."
Why aren't all mortgage rates below 3%?
The question many buyers may be wondering is why all lenders aren't offering such rock-bottom rates. In March, the Federal Reserve slashed short-term interest rates to between 0% and 0.25% to ameliorate the economic carnage wrought by the coronavirus. So why haven't mortgage rates followed suit?
The main reason: Mortgage lenders are inflating mortgage rates because of the substantial financial risks that the coronavirus has introduced. Higher rates provide profits—as well as a bit of a financial cushion during uncertain economic times.
(It's also important to note that mortgage rates are more closely tied to U.S. Treasury bonds. When bond prices are low, mortgage rates go up, and vice versa.)
"We should be under 3% and we're not," says Indianapolis-based mortgage lender Don Frommeyer of CIBM Mortgage. He chalks it up to overall uncertainty about the road forward. "Everybody’s spooked about what’s going to happen.”
Lenders want to free up capital to make new loans, so they typically don't want to hold on to the mortgages they make. They bundle the loans they make and sell them on the secondary mortgage market to investors. But buyers of these mortgage-backed securities, or mortgage bonds, as they're called, want to make sure they're making profitable investments.
If borrowers default on their mortgages, make partial payments, or skip payments entirely because they've lost jobs or income during the pandemic, then investors don't get paid. So they're less likely to want to accept ultralow mortgage rates, which also cuts into their profits, during a financial crisis. And lenders depend on investors to scoop up their loans.
"People might have a harder time paying their mortgage right now. That’s why the rate on mortgage goes up," says realtor.com's Hale. "Investors are demanding a higher interest rate because they’re taking on more risk.”
More than 36 million folks have filed for unemployment since the crisis roiled the American economy roughly two months ago. That's resulted in roughly 4.1 million homeowners requesting forbearance on their mortgages as of May 10, according to the most recent data from the Mortgage Bankers Association. This allows them to miss monthly, housing payments for a period of time.
Will mortgage rates in the 2% range boost the housing market?
Even interest rates in the mid-2% range may not be enough to spur buyers to make what may be the biggest purchase of their lives in the middle of what's shaping up to likely be another recession. With unemployment reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression and fears that it will likely get worse, many potential buyers are understandably nervous about signing up for 10-, 15-, or even 30-year mortgages.
Plus, many lenders are requiring borrowers to have higher credit scores and down payments given all of the financial uncertainty. That's going to make it even more difficult for many folks to get a mortgage and snag those ultralow rates.
"It [is] an opportune time to borrow money," says Hale. But "we're probably going to see fewer buyers given all the economic uncertainty."
And the new requirements "are naturally going to create some hurdles for buyers to jump over," she adds.