Mortgage rate decline pulls buyers back into the housing market

Housing expectations for 2024: What you need to know

A sharp drop in mortgage interest rates in December may have kickstarted this year’s spring housing market early. Rates are about a full percentage point lower than they were in October, and consumers expect they will fall even more.

Optimism about mortgage rates increased sharply in December, according to a monthly consumer survey by Fannie Mae. For the first time since the survey was launched in 2010, more homeowners on net believe rates will go down rather than up, according to Mark Palim, deputy chief economist at Fannie Mae.

“This significant shift in consumer expectations comes on the heels of the recent bond market rally,” said Palim. “Notably, homeowners and higher-income groups reported greater rate optimism than renters.”

The average rate on the 30-year fixed has been on a wild ride since the start of the Covid pandemic. It hit more than a dozen record lows in 2020 and 2021, below 3%, causing a historic run on homebuying and a sharp rise in prices, only to then more than double in 2022. Rates hit a more than 20-year high in October 2023, hovering around 8% before falling back below 7% in December. Rates, however, are still twice what they were three years ago.

Ryan Paredes (R) and Ariadna Paredes look at a home being shown to them by Ryan Ratliff, a Real Estate Sales Associate with Re/Max Advance Realty, on April 20, 2023 in Cutler Bay, Florida. 

Joe Raedle | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Buyers are coming back. Washington, D.C.-area real estate agent Paul Legere hosted two open houses over the weekend — homes in the $1.1 million to $1.2 million price range — and said they were the busiest he’s experienced in the last year.

“Similar report from my co-worker,” he added. “Even on Saturday, during torrential rain, we both had over 10 groups of active shoppers. These were people that had been in the market and had slowed or put their search on hold and are coming back, earnestly looking for a new property.”

Looking for inventory

Legere said he expects to see “an infusion” of inventory in the next week or two. Tight inventory has helped keep prices higher, another hurdle for potential homebuyers.

“Homeowners have told us repeatedly of late that high mortgage rates are the top reason why it’s both a bad time to buy and sell a home, and so a more positive mortgage rate outlook may [incentivize] some to list their homes for sale, helping increase the supply of existing homes in the new year,” said Palim.

A recent report from Redfin, a national real estate brokerage, found demand starting to pick up in December as rates fell. Redfin’s Homebuyer Demand Index — a seasonally adjusted measure of requests for tours and other homebuying services from Redfin agents — was up 10% from a month ago to its highest level since August, according to the report. Pending sales, which measure signed contracts on existing homes, were down 3% from December 2022, but that was the smallest decline in two years.

Much will depend on both interest rates and home prices in the months to come. Prices continue to rise, due to lack of supply, and if rates continue to drop, price gains could accelerate. The lower the rate, the more potential homebuyers can afford.

While mortgage rates are expected to drop further, that will depend on the strength of the economy and inflation.

“The rate momentum is as good as the trajectory of economic data. So if the data continues to do what it has been doing, there’s no reason rates couldn’t go down into the 5’s, possibly even the high 4’s if some of the talking heads are right about recession in 2024,” Matthew Graham, chief operating officer of Mortgage News Daily, said on CNBC’s “The Exchange.”

The average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage hit a recent low of 6.61% at the end of December, but is up slightly this month to 6.76%, according to Mortgage News Daily.