WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage fell to 3.94 percent this week, the lowest rate ever. For those who can qualify, it's an extraordinary opportunity to buy or refinance.
Mortgage rates could fall even further now that the Federal Reserve plans to reshuffle its portfolio of securities to try and lower long-term rates.
On Thursday, Freddie Mac said the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage dropped from 4.01 percent last week, the previous low. The average rate on a 15-year fixed loan, a popular refinancing option, dipped to 3.26 percent, also a record.
Still, rates have been near historic lows for more than a year and have done little to boost home sales. Many people don't have enough cash or home equity to get a loan, or they are reluctant to take the risk in this market.
This year is shaping up to be among the worst for sales of previously occupied homes in 14 years. High unemployment, scant wage gains and heavy debt loads have kept many people from buying. Others can't qualify. Banks are insisting on higher credit scores and 20 percent down payments for first-time buyers.
A drop in mortgage rates could provide some help to the economy if more people could refinance. When people refinance at lower rates, they pay less interest on their loans and have more money to spend.
Consider a homeowner who owes $250,000 and is paying 5.09 percent on a 30-year fixed mortgage. That was the average rate being offered in January 2010. Refinancing the loan at 3.94 percent could save him or her more than $2,000 a year.
But many homeowners with good jobs and stable finances have already refinanced over the past year. Most experts say rates would need to fall at least a full percentage point before it makes sense to refinance again.
The reason is homeowners typically pay a few thousand dollars in closing costs when they refinance. And the low rates being offered don't include extra fees, which many borrowers must pay to get the rates. Those fees are known as points; one point equals 1 percent of the loan amount.
The average fee for the 30-year and 15-year rose to 0.8. The average fees for both the five-year and one-year adjustable-rate loans were 0.6 and 0.5, respectively.
To calculate average mortgage rates, Freddie Mac surveys lenders across the country Monday through Wednesday of each week.
The average rate on a five-year adjustable-rate mortgage fell to 2.96 percent. The average for the one-year adjustable-rate mortgage ticked up to 2.95 percent.