Blunting the Effects of Rising Interest Rates
We’re keeping a close eye on mortgage rates. After years of historic lows, rates are on the way up and will likely close in on 5 percent by mid-2014 and go even higher in 2015, from an average 3.5 percent in early 2013. That is unwelcome news for buyers, and we can expect some households to be pushed out of the market as a result.
For example, there are about 17.8 million renter households with sufficient annual income—at least $36,000—to buy a $177,000 home at a 3.5 percent mortgage rate, compared to 14.9 million at a 5 percent mortgage rate.
One major factor can blunt the harm of rising rates: the return to normal underwriting standards. In fact, lenders, sitting on portfolios of healthy loans, started making financing more available in recent months, and the trend is continuing. I estimate 15 to 20 percent more households qualifying for safe, affordable mortgages as lenders offer conventional conforming loans to households with credit scores in the 720 range, down from 760–770 in the last several years, and making FHA loans available to borrowers with scores in the 660 range, down from 680–700.
What can also spur more buying is improving employment. Job growth reached 2 million over the last 12 months and the same rate is expected in the year ahead.
Additionally, the much improved performance of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should lead to a reduction in the fees they’ve been charging over the past few years to recoup their losses from the housing bust. Because of their strong portfolios and the fee increases, they’re making healthy profits. Their priority should be to repay the taxpayer funds they received after the bust, and when that obligation is satisfied, the GSEs should cut their fees. Not only is that the right thing to do as taxpayer-owned entities, but it could help households who otherwise might not be able to buy in today’s rising interest-rate environment.