30-year mortgage rate rises to 3.57%

WASHINGTON Ė Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages edged up last week but remained near historic lows. Low rates have helped drive the housing marketís steady recovery.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate for the 30-year fixed loan rose to 3.57 percent from 3.54 percent. Thatís near the 3.31 percent reached in November, which was the lowest on records dating to 1971.

The average rate on the 15-year fixed mortgage increased to 2.76 percent from 2.72 percent last week. The record low of 2.63 percent also was reached in November.

The lowest mortgage rates in decades are spurring more home purchases and refinancing. Thatís helped the broader economy. Increased sales are also pushing home prices higher.

In February, sales of previously occupied homes rose to a seasonally adjusted pace of 4.98 million, the fastest in more than three years. And U.S. home prices rose 8.1 percent in January, the fastest annual rate since the peak of the housing boom in the summer of 2006.

Fewer people signed contracts to buy homes in February. But the level stayed near a three-year high, leading many analysts to predict re-sales will keep rising in the coming months. Thereís normally a one- to two-month delay between a signed contract and a completed sale.

One concern remains the limited number of available homes for sale. That could slow sales at the start of the all-important spring-buying season.

And some people are unable to take advantage of the low mortgage rates, either because they canít qualify for stricter lending rules or they lack the money for larger down payment requirements. First-time home buyers made up 30 percent of existing home sales in February, well below the 40 percent that is typical in a healthy market.

To calculate average mortgage rates, Freddie Mac surveys lenders across the country on Monday through Wednesday each week. The average doesnít include extra fees, known as points, which most borrowers must pay to get the lowest rates. One point equals 1 percent of the loan amount.