Lower Mortgage Rates Aren't Likely to Reverse Sagging Home Sales

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08/09/2019 | 02:58 pm

By Laura Kusisto

U.S. mortgage rates have tumbled to their lowest level in nearly three years, but they are unlikely to provide much of a lift to the sluggish home-sales market.

Economists said the rates could provide a modest boost to sales during the final months of this year, though few expect cheaper borrowing costs to reverse the course of a slowing market. Home sales have been weighed down by steep prices and limited starter-home inventory in many markets.

"It's a bit of an added lease on life for this housing cycle. I don't think it's going to dramatically change anything," said Issi Romem, senior director of housing and urban economics at Zillow.

Average rates for a 30-year mortgage hit their lowest level since November 2016, falling to 3.6% from 3.75% last week, Freddie Mac said on Thursday. Those mortgage rates have been falling for much of this year, after hitting nearly 5% in November.

Lower rates have had an impact in refinancing. Applications for refinancing increased 12% in the week ending Aug. 7 compared with the prior week, but purchase applications declined 2% in the same period, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Existing home sales are down about 4% so far this year, according to an analysis of National Association of Realtors data by Ted Jones, chief economist at Stewart Title Guaranty Co.

The national slowdown in the housing market has been driven by high-price markets, especially in the West Coast markets like the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Seattle. Economists and real-estate agents said some of the factors driving the recent decline in borrowing costs -- a weakening global economy, an intensifying trade battle with China, and new fears about a U.S. recession -- are likely to have a bigger impact on the market than lower rates.

"What's screwing everything up is the trade talks. When people have a lot of money and things are uncertain, they just kind of wait," said Jeff Barnett, a regional manager at Compass in the Bay Area.

Mr. Barnett said business in his office is down about 20% compared with a year earlier.

Even in more affordable markets, falling rates may have come too late to offer a significant boost to the housing market. About 40% of existing home sales take place from March through June each year.

"We're already far along in the housing season. I think people were making the decision whether to buy or not earlier in the year," said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin.

Agents said they have not received many calls in recent weeks as rates fell because many people are on vacation or worried about getting their children back to school.

"It came during what I would consider our back-to-school season when buyers take a little bit of a pause," said Dakotah Smith, a Redfin market manager for Iowa and Nebraska.

The strongest headwind facing the housing market at the moment is a shortage of starter homes, said Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac. Lower mortgage rates could make those homes slightly more affordable to buyers but don't help if they simply can't find homes in their price range to buy.

"The price of money is really low and it's declining but that's not what's holding back the market," Mr. Khater said.

Write to Laura Kusisto at laura.kusisto@wsj.com

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