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LOCALIZE IT: Home shoppers weigh whether to buy now or wait for lower mortgage rates

ALEX VEIGA
April 11, 2024

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- EDITORS/NEWS DIRECTORS:

The possibility of lower mortgage rates later this year is looming large over this spring homebuying season.

Home shoppers and sellers alike are having to consider whether to buy or sell now, or hold out for lower rates.

Either choice presents potential risks. Lower rates would give homebuyers more purchasing power, but also likely lead to heightened competition and higher prices.

Sellers have to balance the benefit of putting their home on the market now, traditionally the busiest period for home sales, or wait until rates come down further, bringing out more home shoppers. Holding out for a pullback in rates would also benefit homeowners who are looking to sell their home and buy another.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. housing market remains skewed in favor of sellers amid a stubborn shortage of homes for sale that keeps home prices rising despite a steep sales slump the past two years.

Homebuyers also face mortgage rates that remain just below 7% and, for now, show little sign of easing much.

Here are some resources for finding data from your area and ideas for localizing the story.

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READ AP'S STORY

Homebuyers' quandary: to wait or not to wait for lower mortgage rates

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PINPOINTING THE NUMBERS

A trove of state and local housing market information is available from real estate services and associations. Here are some places to find key stats:

-- Home sales: The National Association of Realtors does a monthly report on existing home sales, that is broken down by region (Northeast, South, Midwest and West) in their press release, but the trade organization will also provide state-by-state data upon request. The popular real estate services Zillow, Realtor.com and Redfin can also provide localized data on any major metropolitan market upon request. Each state, and many localities, have a chapter of the National Association of Realtors that can also provide you state or local data on home sales.

-- Homes prices: The most common metric to track home prices is the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, which tracks home prices nationally but also in a 20-city composite index which is available for reporters monthly: https://www.spglobal.com/spdji/en/index-family/indicators/sp-corelogic-case-shiller/#overview

-- Mortgage applications: The Mortgage Bankers Association's weekly mortgage application survey gives a national picture on mortgage activity, but the trade association will provide state data upon request. The national activity can be downloaded and tracked by the Mortgage Bankers Association's website: https://www.mba.org/news-and-research/newsroom

-- Mortgage rates: Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac releases weekly data on mortgage rates, including the national average rate for the benchmark 30-year home loan and the 15-year mortgage, which is popular with homeowners looking to refinance. The data are available on Freddie Mac's website: https://www.freddiemac.com/pmms

-- Data on home listings. Realtor.com updates its searchable database on home listings, prices, sales and other data every week. A spreadsheet with the most current and historical data can be downloaded here: https://www.realtor.com/research/data

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LOCALIZING THE STORY

The trajectory of mortgage rates and availability of properties on the market -- which has improved but remains well-below its pre-pandemic level -- will largely determine homebuyers' and sellers' actions this spring homebuying season, and beyond. But as the old adage goes, real estate is local, so these housing market forces will play out differently across the country. Here are some questions to ask:

-- Is the inventory of homes for sale in your local market running ahead or below this time last year? What does it look like versus five years ago, before the pandemic? How long are homes typically staying on the market before they're sold, and what does that look like compared to recent years? The answers to these questions can help determine whether a market favors sellers, or whether it's tipping more in favor of home shoppers.

-- What are some of the housing market trends that may be different this year than in prior years? For example, are more of the homes being sold to out-of-state buyers? That trend helped drive home prices sharply higher in many parts of the country during the frenzied housing markets early in the pandemic era.

-- How has affordability improved, or worsened, for first-time homebuyers in your market? Is the share of homes purchased by first-time buyers down or up compared to recent years? Has there been a noteworthy increase in condominium or townhome sales, which could point to entry level buyers opting for a less expensive option than a traditional single-family home. Are many or most of the first-time buyers in your area receiving financial help from relatives or state-funded down payment assistance programs?

-- What percentage of homes in your geography are new construction versus existing homes? Homebuilders have been ramping up construction and offering incentives to make it more affordable for homebuyers to manage the initial costs of buying a home. Particularly for Sun Belt states and cities, new construction homes tend to make up a bigger share of all sales than elsewhere in the country. New construction can often be more accurately tracked by your local property registration agency, like a secretary of states office or property office.

-- How prevalent are bidding wars or buyers paying above the list price? Some 20% of the previously occupied homes sold in February were purchased for more than their list price. And more than a third of homes were bought entirely with cash, which often puts buyers who need to rely on financing at a disadvantage when vying for a home fetching offers from multiple home shoppers.

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PUBLISHABLE CONTEXT

Prospective homebuyers this spring have to navigate a housing market that remains unaffordable for many Americans. A chronically low supply of homes for sale has kept pushing home prices higher overall even as U.S. home sales slumped the past two years.

While job-related relocation, marriage or other life events can often dictate the timing for home shoppers, many are focused on mortgage rates after home loan borrowing costs spiked the last couple of years.

After climbing to a 23-year high of 7.79% in October, the average rate on a 30-year mortgage has remained below 7% since early December, though it also hasn't gone below the 6.6% it averaged in January.

In late February, it got up as high as 6.94% after stronger-than-expected reports on inflation, the job market and the economy clouded the outlook for when the Federal Reserve may begin lowering its short-term interest rate.

Many economists expect that mortgage rates will ease moderately this year, but that's not likely to happen before the Fed begins cutting its benchmark interest rate. Last month, the central bank signaled again that it expects to make three rate cuts this year, but not before it sees more evidence that inflation is slowing from its current level just above 3%.

How the bond market reacts to the Fed's interest rate policy, as well as other factors can influence mortgage rates. Current indications are mortgage rates will remain higher for a while longer.

The overall pullback in mortgage rates since their peak last fall has helped provide more financial breathing room for homebuyers.

Sales of previously occupied U.S. homes rose in February from the previous month to the strongest pace in a year. That followed a month-to-month home sales increase in January.

Still, the average rate on a 30-year mortgage remains well above where it was just two years ago at 4.72%. That large gap between rates now and then has helped limit the number of previously occupied homes on the market because many homeowners who bought or refinanced more than two years ago are reluctant to sell and give up their fixed-rate mortgages below 3% or 4%.

Even so, the pace of new homes hitting the market in the leadup to the spring homebuying season has been stronger than last year.

Active listings -- a tally that encompasses all the homes on the market but excludes those pending a finalized sale -- jumped nearly 24% in March from a year earlier, according to Realtor.com. That marks the fifth consecutive month of annual inventory growth.

Home shoppers last month still had far fewer options than they did before the pandemic. In March 2019, active listings were nearly 38% higher.

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Localize It is an occasional feature produced by The Associated Press for its customers' use. Questions can be directed to Katie Oyan at koyan@ap.org.

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