Bill Jones recently said he was “busier than I ever have been.” Bill Scott said that moderately priced homes were moving so quickly that some of his clients must make offers for several houses before they grab one.
Comments from these two mortgage originators reflect brisk activity locally despite – or perhaps because of – signals from Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen that the Federal Reserve may well increase interest rates more than once this year.
The first move in that direction came March 15, when all but one member of the Federal Open Market Committee – the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy body –voted to increase its key interest rate a quarter percentage point. That boosted the target range for the federal funds rate to 0.75 percent-1 percent.
Ahead of that increase that impacts mortgage rates, along with credit card rates and other loans, homebuying was strong at the start of the year.
Cape Fear Realtors reported home sales in January increased nearly 41 percent over those of January 2016, reaching an historic high for the month. Kathleen Baylies of Just For Buyers Realty in Wilmington said she wouldn’t be surprised to see growth continue.
“It’s been a pretty remarkable first quarter so far,” she said in early March.
Home purchasing activity means plenty of business for local mortgage firms.
“We’ve been very, very busy. Mortgage rates are still low,” said Jones, mortgage loan officer at North State Bank Mortgage in Wilmington.
Earlier this month, Jones was quoting a rate of 4.25 percent for a 30-year fixed loan with 20 percent down. At the same time, the rate for VA, FHA and USDA loans was 3.75 percent.
“I have been projecting an influx of second homes and retirees from up north,” Jones said, adding that Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties’ real estate market are still benefiting from buyers’ pent-up demand, now that the U.S. economy has improved.
When the market was weak, would-be retirees were often staying on the job and waiting longer to sell their homes, he said. Now that real estate is moving again, particularly in the Northeast, home values have to sell, and they have money to spend in this market.
“Half my current business is in Brunswick County: Oak Island, Southport, Magnolia Greens, Brunswick Forest, St. James,” Jones said. “That area is just booming.”
Scott, an outside mortgage originator with Corning Credit Union, said he did several closings in January – the result of contracts signed in December. Although January mortgage activity was slower, he said the pace has quickened since for him, even with the credit union’s addition in January of Lisa Moore Harris as a new outside mortgage originator.
There are three points to keep in mind while observing the brisk pace of the early spring mortgage market locally, according to Wade Burke, sales manager at Atlantic Bay Mortgage Group in Wilmington.
“First, five years ago or so, the ratio of refinance to purchase was about 80-20. That has flipped now to about 80 percent purchase, 20 percent refinance,” he said.
“HARPs at the big banks are exhausted,” he added, referring to the Obama administration’s Home Affordable Refinance Program, which ends this year. “The program was designed especially to help homeowners who were under water on their mortgages.”
Burke’s second point is the slight loosening of credit requirements to enable more people to borrow.
“Now we can write [a loan] for [a credit score of] 580, as an example. Five years ago, during the Recession, if you had 600 or below credit, there were few programs you could qualify for.
Now there is easing from earlier standards,” he said.
And finally, Burke said, the home purchase market is seeing growth because of consumers’ overall confidence in the economy.
“With the elections behind us, we expect this to continue,” he said.
Scott agrees that consumer confidence is an important factor in homebuying at present.
“Look at RiverLights. Look at The Forks. Houses are going up all over the place,” he said, adding that his clients are a mix of people moving to the area, local residents buying up and first-time purchasers. Most are purchasing homes already built, but Scott has done some construction loans.
Despite the new housing developments, a major driver of home purchases may be low inventory, Baylies said. Scarcity means potential buyers worry less about mortgage rates.
“If a home is under the $300,000 range, and if it’s priced appropriately and in reasonably good shape, it will go fast,” she added.
And while refinances contribute to mortgage lending activity, that volume is down for Scott. He’s still getting, however, a few applications.
There are still a lot of people who waited too long to refinance and missed the lowest of the rates, he said, adding that some may still “be sitting on a 6 percent rate, and some are refinancing to shorten the term of their loan.”