Is the Refi 'Apocalypse' Really Upon Us?

By Diana Olick

Mortgage rates
today are very low, but U.S. borrowers have a very short memory. They forget that the rate on the 30-year fixed, which sits around 3.6 percent today, was a full percentage point higher a year ago, and above 5 percent in January of 2010. The purchasing power gained through today's low rates have arguably helped fuel the recovery in home sales. Low rates have also sparked a boom in mortgage refinancing, which in turn has put more spending money in consumers' pockets. Still, the slightest move higher has dramatic effects.

Witness the 10 percent drop in refinance applications from a week ago, on the Mortgage Bankers Association's weekly report. The rate on the 30-year fixed moved from 3.62 percent to 3.67 percent. "We're busy because we're pushing," says Julian Hebron at California-based RPM Mortgage. "Mostly people have been lulled into complacency by long-term rate lows, and it's common for them to maintain their 'It'll come back down' stance when rates rise. But rates are now up .375 percent, and it may hold, given MBS/Treasury market technicals and moderately improving economic fundamentals. The complacency has a lot to do with rates having been low enough to make no-cost refis easy. But when rates rise this much, the no-cost options go away and people tend to wake up."

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Apex Home Loans CEO Craig Strent says a rise in rates could actually bring in more business in the short term. "There is a huge population that have benefitted from adjustable-rate mortgages. When the rates adjusted, they adjusted down. Those homeowners have been riding those low, one-year ARMs. If they start to hear about rates going up, they may come out of the woodwork to lock into fixed rates," says Strent.

That may be, but 88 percent of loans outstanding today are fixed, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Just 12 percent are adjustable rate. Even if rates do not rise any higher than they are today, which they may not, they would have to fall below last year's lows to see the high refinance volume of 2012 continue in 2013.

"The refi apocalypse is upon us," says Mark Hanson, a mortgage analyst in Northern California. "The thought is that there are a bunch of homeowners on the fence who haven't refi'd who will all jump in thinking they will miss out. The theory is 100 percent nonsense. The series will simply plunge. That's because after 16 months of sub 4 percent rates -- and every bank loan officer and mortgage broker doing everything they can after a long mortgage banking income drought that ended with Twist -- there is nobody left to refi. In fact, the only reason refi applications stayed flat in Q3 and Q4 was because they passed a new law allowing refinances regardless of the LTV [loan to value]...the HARP unlimited LTV refi."

Read the rest of this story on CNBC.

See more on CNBC:
Taking the Real Estate Recovery Local
The Real Estate Recovery, in Your Neighborhood
Why Sequestration Will Hot Housing on Several Fronts

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