Real-estate and mortgage experts said they expect to see a busier fall if record-low interest rates drop even lower.
The Federal Reserve last month announced plans to push interest rates still lower even after they had reached a new record-low of 3.4 percent on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.
But with rates already so low, is this really an incentive for most buyers?
“In terms of helping South Jersey, it makes it easier for people to qualify for a home loan with a lower interest rate. People are coming off the fence more,” said Jim Malamut, a loan originator with Annie Mac Home Mortgage in Pleasantville.
Experts said lower rates are pushing people to refinance their mortgage loans and is working to spur increasing interest in the housing market. This is serving to dry up the surplus demand, which could prod a lethargic building industry in South Jersey.
But the murky jobs outlook — especially in Atlantic County — still makes buying a home a gamble for many residents, he said.
“Casinos affect the employment rate in Atlantic County. People who work at the casinos are scared to go out and buy a house,” he said.
Malamut, 29, of Ventnor, said the Fed’s program to buy mortgage-backed securities had an immediate effect on interest rates. And in the long term, rates could drop even lower in months to come.
“It’s directly related to the economy. If the economy stays on this path, it might fall another quarter percentage point. If things get worse, rates might fall much lower,” he said. “You hope the economy is on the right path, but you hear mixed signals.”
Nationwide, buyers have taken notice.
Mortgage applications jumped 17 percent in the week after the Fed’s announcement last month, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Refinancing applications also jumped 20 percent, reaching a three-year high.
Buyers of homes with loans of less than $417,500 are seeing actual interest rates of just 3.5 percent for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. Buyers with “jumbo” loans in excess of $417,500 are paying an average of 3.8 percent. This compares to rates around 5.1 percent just last year.
Meanwhile, people are refinancing their mortgages at the fastest rates in seven years, according to Lender Processing Services Inc., based in Jacksonville, Fla.
“If they took out a loan at 4.5 percent, today they can save almost a full percentage point,” said Herb Blecher, director of loan data products for LPS.
For a $300,000 mortgage, that translates to $3,000 per year in savings over the life of the loan, he said. That is money borrowers can use for home improvements or to pay household bills, all of which helps the local economy.
“Today, it’s cheaper to borrow money to build a business — or build a bridge,” he said.
The lower interest rates help even “underwater” borrowers who owe more on their homes than they are worth, he said. These borrowers can’t reap any cash value from refinancing because they don’t have equity. But with a lower interest rate, they are less likely to default on the loan.
Anthony Rizzotte, chief lending officer for Ocean City Home Bank, said borrowers stand to save thousands of dollars.
The bank has written about 20 percent more loans compared to the same time last year, he said. The bank expects to top $100 million in residential lending this year. About 60 percent are refinances. This gives customers more buying power.
“We’re seeing a lot of people shorten their term. Instead of paying 5.5 percent on a 30-year loan, they’ll pay 3.8 percent on a 15-year loan,” he said. “The payment is the same but they save thousands of dollars.”
Investment properties are starting to move again in places such as North Wildwood and Ocean City.
“Our numbers are looking good,” said Maria Marinelli, president of the Ocean City Board of Realtors.
Marinelli, 47, of Margate, is a broker with Re/Max At The Shore in Ocean City.
Year-to-date sales in Ocean City are up 13 percent over last year, she said. Meanwhile, inventory is shrinking from more than 1,300 listings last year to 921 last quarter. Average prices, too, are holding steady at about $557,000.
“We’ve definitely stabilized, which is what I noticed earlier this year,” she said. “I think you’ll see increased sales and, as the numbers get stronger, you’ll see more new construction on the island.
Likewise, real-estate offices in North Wildwood have been busy. Both cities see a majority of investment interest from residents in the Greater Philadelphia area.
“In the second-home market, we’ve seen a surge in August and September,” said Don Martin, owner of Don Martin Realty Inc., in North Wildwood.
“Buyers need to have security in their job. That’s the bottom line,” he said. “I’m not sure lowering the interest rates alone will do it.”
Martin said it’s somewhat easier to obtain financing than in the first year after the housing-market collapse.
“You don’t need a (perfect) 800 credit and 30 percent down,” he said. “Banks have loosened up a little.”
As a result, the inventory in North Wildwood has started to shrink. Eventually, this will spur new construction in southern New Jersey, he said.
“If you talk to builders, you’ll see they’re a little more active now, too,” he said. “You’re seeing more home starts on the island.”
Martin is not simply paying lip service to the market. He recently invested in three properties on the island.
“I’m buying. That’s all I can tell you. I’m very optimistic,” he said. “I’m very confident in the market.”
For those with the will and the means, there are bargains to be had, Martin said.
“Your buying power is incredibly strong right now because of the low rates,” he said.
Annie Mac’s Malamut said buyers have more incentive to act now than even when the U.S. Treasury offered $8,000 tax credits to first-time homebuyers in 2009.
“At the time they were trying to do whatever they could to spur housing. But over the long term, the interest rates coming down are better for buyers,” he said. “Rates have come down 2 percentage points since 2010. I’m already getting calls about refinancing loans from two years ago.”
The Fed’s latest effort to stimulate the economy through bond purchases is aimed at promoting employment. Inflation, the agency’s other main concern, has not been much of an issue since the recession. But high unemployment continues to dog southern New Jersey and the national economy.
The state unemployment rate of 9.9 percent in August was much higher than the national average of 8.1 percent, which fell to 7.8 percent in September. And locally the job situation is even worse.
Unemployment remained in double digits in Cumberland (14.4 percent), Cape May (14.1 percent) and Atlantic (13.3 percent) counties in August, in seasonally adjusted federal figures.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke called high unemployment “a grave concern.” More than half of the 8 million jobs lost during the recession have not been recovered.
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