Mortgage Rates Are Going Up: But Why? We Break it Down Here

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In an effort to curb inflation, the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rates seven times in 2022, followed by four more rate hikes in 2023. This pushed the 30-year fixed mortgage rate from its January 2021 low of 2.65% to where it has been in recent months, fluctuating between 6.5% and 8%.

But why are mortgage rates going up?

Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy answer to this question. Many factors are at play when it comes to determining mortgage interest rates, and there’s little that the everyday consumer can do to change them. According to experts, though, now is still a good time to buy (or sell!) a home if you’re in a position to do so.

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With the help of HomeLight Mortgage expert Richie Helali and top real estate agent Leanne Hester based in Newport News, Virginia, we’re taking a deep dive into why mortgage rates have been rising in recent years and what it all means for homebuyers and sellers.

What determines mortgage interest rates?

In short, the market is what drives interest rates. And “the market” means everything from stocks to inflation to consumer spending habits — so when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020 and brought everything to a screeching halt, well, the powers that be had to do something to get dollars moving around again.

“The government did what the government normally does when there’s a recession; they had to get people to spend money,” says Helali. “They had to encourage people to spend, whether that was consumers, businesses, and so forth — they needed people to invest. So as a result, they slashed interest rates.”

And at the top of this “they” is the Fed, the same government entity that has now been raising interest rates in an effort to curb inflation.

The Federal Reserve System

The Federal Reserve System defines itself as “the central bank of the United States”, with five functions that serve to “promote the effective operation of the U.S economy and, more generally, the public interest.”

Part of these functions is to moderate long-term interest rates — including those for mortgages. The Fed increases interest rates to help combat inflation, which is at a 40-year high. When borrowing money becomes more expensive, people tend to spend less.

If you’re thinking this all sounds very back-and-forth — so the Fed wanted us to spend money during the past two years, but now we’re supposed to spend less? — you’re not wrong.

“Toward the end of last year and this year, we started seeing rates go up quite a bit and extremely quickly. This was the result of inflation,” Helali explains. “Part of the pandemic supply chain issues comes from folks wanting to spend more money to get the same goods, and as a result, inflation comes in at a record high. When that happens, the government needs to find a way to manage.”

Thus, interest rates go up, and the housing market slows.

“But it’s all for good reasons,” says Helali. “The ultimate goal is that we need to get that proper balance.” This balance is what economists call a “soft landing,” a tightrope walk that requires keeping unemployment and inflation low while at the same time generating robust growth. History has shown us this is an elusive combination.

Prime rates and the bond market

While the Fed is at the helm of why interest rates have been going up the past two years, the prime rate and the bond market also play roles in how people spend their money.

As the term suggests, the prime rate is a rate that banks and other financial institutions offer to well-qualified customers. People with great credit can typically receive a lower interest rate, or this so-called prime rate. Banks adjust the prime rate based on what the Fed has set forth and what the market is otherwise doing — always trying to strike that balance to get consumers to spend enough money to avoid a recession, but not so much as to cause inflation.

Within the bond market, participants can exchange debt securities, usually in the form of bonds. These are investments, subject to fluctuation in value depending on what’s happening with the market. When fixed-rate bond prices are up, mortgage rates are down, and vice versa.

Inflation and the economy

As Helali explained, when spending stops, we can enter a recession. When frantic spending occurs, with people willing to pay more than they usually would for goods and services, inflation can occur.

In 2021 and 2022, the real estate market was hot, hot, hot — with sellers holding the literal keys as buyers scrambled to find inventory and compete against multiple offers in the hopes of a successful purchase. As the market cooled, things started to level out for buyers, and part of this was due to increasing interest rates slowing down the bidding frenzy.

Why are mortgage rates going up?

As we’ve just covered, inflation is at the core of why mortgage rates have been going up. Whether they’ll continue to rise will depend on how the Feds feel about their efforts as they monitor the country’s inflation gauges. As 2023 comes to a close, many experts feel inflation remains elevated but has cooled significantly.

Interest rate forecasts

Most economists agree that rates should decline somewhat throughout 2024, but forecasters can’t agree on how low rates will fall or when relief may come. Fannie Mae and Goldman Sachs predict that rates will stay above 7% all year, while The National Association of Realtors, Mortgage Finance Forecast and Wells Fargo predict rates to fall below 7% by year-end.

Interest rate perspectives

While rates in the 6% and 7% range may sound high compared to the 2% to 4% rates we’ve had for the last couple of years, from a historical context, mortgage rates are still pretty affordable. Just take a look at this New York Times article from January 1986, when the possibility of 30-year rates dipping below 10% was an exciting possibility.

Mortgage rate trends 1974-2023

Year Average 30-year rate Year Average 30-year rate Year Average 30-year rate Year Average 30-year rate
1974 9.19% 1987 10.21% 2000 8.05% 2013 3.98%
1975 9.05% 1988 10.34% 2001 6.97% 2014 4.17%
1976 8.87% 1989 10.32% 2002 6.54% 2015 3.85%
1977 8.85% 1990 10.13% 2003 5.83% 2016 3.65%
1978 9.64% 1991 9.25% 2004 5.84% 2017 3.99%
1979 11.20% 1992 8.39% 2005 5.87% 2018 4.54%
1980 13.74% 1993 7.31% 2006 6.41% 2019 3.94%
1981 16.63% 1994 8.38% 2007 6.34% 2020 3.10%
1982 16.04% 1995 7.93% 2008 6.03% 2021 2.96%
1983 13.24% 1996 7.81% 2009 5.04% 2022 5.34%
1984 13.88% 1997 7.60% 2010 4.69% 2023 6.83%*
1985 12.43% 1998 6.94% 2011 4.45% 2024
1986 10.19% 1999 7.44% 2012 3.66% 2025

Source: Freddie Mac (*2023 estimate)

2023 average 30-year mortgage rate

January February March April May June
6.13% 6.50% 6.32% 6.43% 6.57% 6.71%
July August September October November December
6.81% 7.18% 7.31% 7.79% 7.50% 7.45%*

Source: Freddie Mac (*December 2023 estimate)

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What do rising mortgage rates mean for buyers?

“If you ask any real estate agent, they’ll tell you the same thing: It’s always a good time to buy or sell a house,” laughs Helali. But he’s not speaking in jest — there will always be a need to buy and sell.

“Maybe you got a new job and you have to move; maybe you’re an empty nester and you need to downsize; or maybe it’s the other way around, and you need a larger place. Regardless of the market conditions, there’s still going to be people who are looking to purchase,” he says.

Rather than getting hung up on rising or falling interest rates and wondering if it’s better to wait and see what happens, Helali encourages buyers to shift their perspective.

“For anyone buying a house today, what you’re really doing is guaranteeing your price,” Helali shares.

In other words, if you buy a house today for $300,000, you’re locking in that price. If you wait six or eight months (or a year or more), sure, interest rates may have gone down, but the value of that property will almost certainly have gone up.

Buy when you’re ready

From the agent perspective, Hester doesn’t recommend that buyers wait around for interest rates to drop.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea because I don’t see them coming down quickly,” she says, citing limited home inventory as a bigger challenge for buyers right now than anything else. “I always tell my buyers that you have to have a little bit of a thick skin right now. You have to be able to put in several offers, sometimes over your comfort zone.”

To that end, Hester reminds buyers not to get too caught up in the frenzy — mortgage rates aside. Regardless of your motivation to buy a home, don’t let yourself get caught in a bidding war that may push you too far over budget.

“It’s easy to have the mentality of, ‘Well, $1,000 more? I don’t want to lose over $1,000,’ and get caught up in that,” Hester explains.

Instead, Hester says that it’s best to work with an experienced agent who will ask the right questions and find creative ways to make your offer more enticing. “Asking the other agent how many offers they have, if there’s anything that might help with the offer — such as a particular closing date or a rent-back situation — I think you have to be a very creative agent right now.”

The bottom line? If you’re otherwise ready to buy now, in a way that makes sense for your lifestyle and your budget, go ahead and buy a house. Don’t let mortgage interest rates encourage or deter you. Remember, you can always refinance later if rates drop significantly enough to where it makes sense.

What do rising mortgage rates mean for sellers?

“We’re still going to have buyers, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” says Hester.

While she doesn’t think potential sellers should avoid putting their homes on the market due to mortgage rates, she does encourage them to keep a level head.

“We’ve had such a frenzy [during the pandemic] that sellers have become a little less realistic. They want way more than what the market pulls — I’m fighting appraisals with almost every property. And you know, more power to them, of course, we want them to get as much as they can, but I think as the market gets pinched down a little, sellers will have to understand that, ‘Hey, I might have to make a repair or two,’” Hester explains.

In fact, in a recent HomeLight survey of more than 1,000 top agents in the country, sellers overpricing their homes was cited as the most common reason buyers are walking away from the negotiation table. The next most common cause was sellers being unwilling to negotiate or make concessions.

So, just as with buying a home, if you’re in a position to sell, go ahead and sell — don’t get hung up on what’s happening with interest rates.

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Remember, it’s all cyclical

For as long as mortgage interest rates have been around, they’ve risen and fallen. At the end of the day, people will always have a reason to buy and sell property, so make the decision based on your needs — not what’s happening with mortgage rates.

And besides, rates could always be worse.

“My dad bought a house in the late seventies,” says Helali. “His first interest rate was 18%.”

Header Image Source: (tokar / Shutterstock)

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