12/15/2016 11:02 EST | Updated 12/16/2017 00:12 EST

Rates surging 5 weeks post-election; will home sales weaken?

WASHINGTON — Mortgage rates are still surging five weeks after Donald Trump's election victory. Will higher rates weaken prospective buyers' confidence next year and dampen home sales?

While the job market is stable, the low mortgage rates that helped spur homebuying this year are disappearing in the rearview mirror.

Steadily rising rates would ultimately limit the number of possible buyers and how much they can afford to pay. And existing homeowners who might otherwise be looking for an upgrade could choose to stay put rather than face higher interest costs.

The "unwelcoming reality" of higher mortgage rates likely is tamping down prospective homebuyers' confidence, says Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors.

"Younger households, renters and those living in the costlier West region — where prices have soared in recent months — are the least optimistic about buying," he said.

A forecast update issued by the Realtors' group Wednesday found that declining affordability in many parts of the country and the rise of mortgage rates likely will lead to only a small gain in sales of existing homes next year. Existing-home sales are forecast to increase 2 per cent, to about 5.52 million.

Still, industry experts say economic fundamentals — like continued job growth and rising homebuying demand from millennials — still look positive for the housing market. Mortgage rates likely will stabilize as the market settles down, some say.

There are economic unknowns, too, as the new Trump administration's economic policy starts to take shape in the coming months. Constraints on home purchases such as tight credit standards and affordability remain.

In the week ended Thursday, the average rate on the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rose to 4.16 per cent from 4.13 per cent the previous week, mortgage company Freddie Mac reported. That compares with 3.57 per cent in the week ended Nov. 9, the day Trump clinched the election. A year ago, the benchmark loan rate averaged 3.97 per cent.

The average for a 15-year mortgage, a popular choice for people who are refinancing, ticked up to 3.37 per cent from 3.36 per cent the week before. In the Election Day week, it was 2.88 per cent.

The rise in mortgage rates was spurred by a sustained decline in U.S. government bond prices in the days after Trump's victory. Bond investors looked toward tax cuts and beefed-up spending to upgrade roads, bridges and airports under a Trump administration, which could fuel inflation. That would depress prices of long-term Treasury bonds because inflation would erode their value over time. The selling wave lifted bond yields, which move opposite to prices and influence long-term mortgage rates.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury bond touched its highest level in more than two years and sat at 2.57 per cent late Wednesday. It was 1.87 per cent on Election Day Nov. 8. The yield rose further to 2.59 per cent Thursday.

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve announced an increase in its benchmark interest rate for the first time in nearly a year.

The climb in mortgage rates has caused fewer consumers to come forward. Applications for mortgage loans fell 4 per cent in the week ended Dec. 9 from a week earlier, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

To calculate average mortgage rates, Freddie Mac surveys lenders across the country between Monday and Wednesday each week.

The average doesn't include extra fees, known as points, which most borrowers must pay to get the lowest rates. One point equals 1 per cent of the loan amount.

The average fee for a 30-year mortgage was unchanged this week at 0.5 point. The fee on 15-year loans also remained at 0.5 point.

Rates on adjustable five-year loans rose to 3.19 per cent from 3.17 per cent. The fee slipped to 0.4 point from 0.5 point.