On the House: On mortgage rates, and what gets people to buy

All eyes were on the Fed in mid-September as members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) met to decide the future of interest rates.

The federal funds rate, the interest rate at which depository institutions lend balances at the Federal Reserve to other banks overnight, was among those up for consideration.

Changes in the fed funds rate trigger a chain of events that affect other short-term interest rates, foreign-exchange rates, long-term interest rates, the amount of money and credit, and, ultimately, a range of economic variables, including employment, output, and prices of goods and services.

Whether an increase in the fed funds rate would affect residential mortgages was never certain.

Before the FOMC decided to leave the rate alone, Rick Sharga, of Auction.com, offered this insight:

"While lenders may temporarily raise rates, they'll probably lower them again in a repeat performance of what we saw when the Fed announced it was ending the quantitative-easing program in 2014.

"Rates jumped up by almost a point; applications cratered; home sales slowed down; rates returned to lower levels; home sales and loan applications picked back up," Sharga said.

Since 2009, the Fed had been buying huge quantities of bonds in an effort to jump-start the economy known as quantitative easing.

Some economists now suggest lenders need to raise interest rates to cool down overheating housing markets - though this region is not among them, observers say.

Home-price appreciation has outpaced wage growth over the last six years in many of those housing markets, and a correction could turn us back to the bad old days from which we had extricated ourselves.

Yet if you believe a survey by the real estate search engine Trulia, an increase in rates would not turn people off from buying homes, though it might slightly lower the price range in which they were looking to buy.

More than 2,000 U.S. adults were surveyed between Sept. 14 and 16 - in advance of the FOMC announcement - to get their take on rising mortgage rates. In a finding that flies in the face of the continuing shortage of homes for sale nationwide in the first-time buyer's price range, nearly 69 percent said $250,000 was the maximum price they would be willing to pay to buy their first or next houses.

Prospective home buyers were most worried about being able to get mortgages and about whether they could find houses they would like, the Trulia survey found.

That is believable because credit remains tight generally for lower-end buyers, and there is a shortage - in the words of Gary Segal, of Keller Williams Real Estate in Blue Bell - of houses "people are willing to buy."

Though most industry observers do not anticipate mortgage rates moving much beyond 4.5 percent over the next year, the survey said 46 percent of Americans who would ever buy homes said that rates beyond 5 percent would discourage them from buying their first or next homes.

Moreover, 15 percent said mortgage rates at 4 percent already were too high for them to consider buying homes.

I had to flip back into the files to find what I wrote, but in March 2009 I reported that the 4.5 percent fixed-rate mortgage was being called real estate's "sweet spot," a surefire way to spark home sales - especially in markets where prices weren't falling fast enough for eager buyers.

It wasn't then. And if the Trulia survey is correct, it isn't now.

aheavens@phillynews.com

215-854-2472@alheavens