Home loan demand rises as rates stay near lows

NEW YORK Wed Nov 10, 2010 9:05am EST

A woman takes a brochure detailing how homeowners can make their mortgage payments more affordable at the Fannie Mae booth set up at the Housing Rescue Fair, part of the National Urban League's Economic Empowerment Tour, in Dallas, Texas June 13, 2009. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

A woman takes a brochure detailing how homeowners can make their mortgage payments more affordable at the Fannie Mae booth set up at the Housing Rescue Fair, part of the National Urban League's Economic Empowerment Tour, in Dallas, Texas June 13, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. mortgage applications rose last week, driven by higher demand for both home purchase and refinance loans, as interest rates remained near record lows, an industry group reported on Wednesday.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted index of mortgage applications, which includes purchase and refinance loans, increased 5.8 percent for the week ended November 5. It was only the third time in eight weeks that activity rose.

The four-week moving average, which smooths the volatile weekly figures, was down 1.9 percent.

"The increases in purchase applications we have seen over the past couple of weeks align with the better-than-expected news from October's employment report and other data indicating some improvement in the economy's growth prospects," Michael Fratantoni, the MBA's vice president of research and economics, said in a statement.

"Refinance applications increased as rates continued to hover near record lows," he said.

The MBA's seasonally adjusted index of refinancing applications increased 6.0 percent. The seasonally adjusted purchase index, a tentative early indicator of home sales, rose 5.5 percent.

Borrowing costs on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages, excluding fees, averaged 4.28 percent, unchanged from the previous week. Interest rates were also below their year-ago level of 4.90 percent.

In the week ended October 8, the rate reached 4.21 percent, the lowest level in the survey, which has been conducted weekly since 1990.

Cameron Findlay, chief economist at LendingTree.com in Charlotte, North Carolina, said loan demand has been constrained, even though many homeowners with mortgages that originated in 2009 or before have an incentive to refinance.

"Lending standards are extremely tight, which is preventing many homeowners from taking advantage of low interest rates," he said in an interview before the release of the MBA data.

"Consumers are also in a de-leveraging mode and they would rather pay down their debt than buy a new home, keeping demand for home purchase loans muted," he said.

The housing market has been struggling since the expiry of popular home buyer tax credits earlier this year.

Findlay said "underwater" mortgages -- where the amount owed on the mortgage exceeds the home's value -- are one of the biggest banes of the homeowners who want to refinance.

This negative equity makes many homeowners unqualified for refinancing and prevents some from selling.

The MBA said fixed 15-year mortgage rates averaged 3.64 percent, unchanged from the previous week. A record low of 3.62 percent was set four weeks earlier.

The rate on one-year adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARMs, decreased to 7.08 percent from 7.18 percent a week ago, the MBA said.

(Editing by Leslie Adler)

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