What the Fed’s May rate hike means for homebuyers and sellers
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Keeping its inflation-fighting streak alive, the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates for the 10th time in 10 meetings. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell announced a quarter-point increase in the federal funds rate May 3, identical to the increases the central bank instituted in February and March.
Earlier in the inflationary cycle, the Fed had enacted increases of as much as three-quarters of a point. The latest boost should mark an end to this round of tightening, says Mike Fratantoni, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association.
“With this increase, we expect this is the peak rate for this cycle, and potential homebuyers and their mortgage lenders may be breathing a sigh of relief,” Fratantoni says. “We continue to expect that mortgage rates will drift down over the course of the year as the economy slows, as we move closer to the Fed lowering rates beginning in 2024, and as financial market volatility finally begins to settle down.”
In an effort to rein in inflation, the Fed boosted interest rates by a quarter-point in March 2022, then by a half-point in May. It raised them even more in June, by three-quarters of a percentage point — which was, at the time, the largest Fed rate hike since 1994. The rate has been raised by at least a quarter-point at every meeting since then. The hikes aimed to cool an economy that was on fire after rebounding from the coronavirus recession of 2020. That dramatic recovery has included a red-hot housing market characterized by record-high home prices and microscopic levels of inventory.
However, for months now the housing market has shown signs of cooling. Home sales have dropped sharply, and appreciation slowed nationally, with home prices dropping in many previously overheated markets. Home prices are not driven solely by interest rates, though, but by a complicated mix of factors — so it’s hard to predict exactly how the Fed’s efforts will affect the housing market.
Higher rates are challenging for both homebuyers, who have to cope with steeper monthly payments, and sellers, who experience less demand and/or lower offers for their homes. After topping 7 percent last fall, mortgage rates dipped back down slightly, with the rate on a 30-year mortgage averaging 6.3 percent in early February. But that rate is inching back up. It stood at 6.52 percent as of May 3, according to Bankrate’s national survey of lenders.
How the Fed affects mortgage rates
The Federal Reserve does not set mortgage rates, and the central bank’s decisions don’t move mortgages as directly as they do other products, such as savings accounts and CD rates. Instead, mortgage rates tend to move in lockstep with 10-year Treasury yields.
A slowing economy and an easing of inflation pressures are the prerequisites for lower mortgage rates.— Greg McBride, Bankrate Chief Financial Analyst
“Mortgage rates don’t take direct cues from the Fed and will instead respond to the outlook for the economy and inflation,” says McBride. Still, the Fed’s policies set the overall tone for mortgage rates. Mortgage lenders and investors closely watch the central bank, and the mortgage market’s attempts to interpret the Fed’s actions affect how much you pay for your home loan.
The Fed bumped rates seven times in 2022, a year that saw mortgage rates swing wildly from 3.4 percent in January all the way to 7.12 percent in October before inching back down again. “Such increases diminish purchase affordability, making it even harder for lower-income and first-time buyers to purchase a home,” says Clare Losey, assistant research economist at the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University.
But as home prices stabilize and mortgage rates fall, the affordability squeeze eases a bit. Home prices declined for seven straight months before rising ever so slightly in February, according to the Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index. And most housing economists expect mortgage rates to fall below 6 percent by the end of 2023.
How much do mortgage rates affect housing demand?
There’s no doubt that record-low mortgage rates helped fuel the housing boom of 2020 and 2021. Some think it was the single most important factor in pushing the residential real estate market into overdrive.
Then, in late 2022, mortgage rates surged higher than they had been in two decades, and the housing market slowed dramatically. Economists expect price declines this year of anywhere from a few percentage points to more than 20 percent.
Yet, in the long term, home prices and home sales tend to be resilient to rising mortgage rates, housing economists say. That’s because individual life events that prompt a home purchase — the birth of a child, marriage, a job change — don’t always correspond conveniently with mortgage rate cycles.
History bears this out. In the 1980s, mortgage rates soared as high as 18 percent, yet Americans still bought homes. In the 1990s, rates of 8 percent to 9 percent were common, and Americans continued snapping up homes. During the housing bubble of 2004 to 2007, mortgage rates were higher than they are today — and prices soared.
So the current slowdown may be more of an overheated market’s return to normalcy rather than the signal of an incipient crash. “The combination of elevated mortgage rates and steep home-price growth over the past few years has greatly reduced affordability,” Fratantoni says.
But with mortgage rates pulling back, affordability is less of a factor. For instance, borrowing $320,000 at last year’s peak rate of 7.12 percent translated to a monthly payment of $2,154. Taking a mortgage for the same amount at February’s rate of 6.3 percent means a monthly payment of $1,980 — a difference of $174 a month.
Next steps for borrowers
Here are some pro tips for dealing with elevated mortgage rates:
- Shop around for a mortgage. Savvy shopping can help you find a better-than-average rate. With the refinance boom considerably slowed, lenders are eager for your business. “Conducting an online search can save thousands of dollars by finding lenders offering a lower rate and more competitive fees,” McBride says.
- Be cautious about ARMs. Adjustable-rate mortgages may look tempting, but McBride says borrowers should steer clear. “Don’t fall into the trap of using an adjustable-rate mortgage as a crutch of affordability,” he says. “There is little in the way of up-front savings, an average of just one-half percentage point for the first five years, but the risk of higher rates in future years looms large. New adjustable mortgage products are structured to change every six months rather than every 12 months, which had previously been the norm.”
- Consider a HELOC. While mortgage refinancing is on the wane, many homeowners are turning to home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) to tap into their home equity. The rationale is simple: If you need $50,000 for a kitchen renovation and you have a mortgage for $300,000 at 3 percent, you probably don’t want to take out a new loan at 6.5 percent. Better to keep the 3 percent rate on the mortgage and take a HELOC — even if it costs 8 percent.