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The regular monthly release of the New Residential Construction report from the Census Bureau is typically fairly dry. To be fair, this month's update is no exception outside the housing nerd community. But even amid the seemingly soporific data, we can find some interesting themes. First off, there's the fact that construction activity continues to operate near its best levels since before the housing meltdown more than a decade ago. Building permits technically dropped 3.2% from last month, but that's after an upward revision of 1.2%. More importantly, despite the drop, the outright pace of 1.819 million units per year means the last 5 months been over 1.8 million. January 2021 was the only other month over 1.8m going back to 2006. The story is similar for the next construction phase, Housing Starts (a measure of when construction actually begins). Starts held fairly steady at 1.724m, making April the 4th best month since 2006. The gap between permits and starts highlights the first aspect of the current challenges faced by the industry. It's a lot easier to file some paperwork than it is to actually break ground. Moving on to "Housing Completions," we see it's even harder to finish construction. Completions have flat-lined in a range centered on April's level of roughly 1.3 million--the same level as early 2019. Back then, there were almost 600k fewer Housing Starts and Building Permits.
Mortgage application activity, which had been on the rebound this month, suffered its largest loss since mid-February during the week ended May 13. Applications for both refinancing and home purchase took double digit hits. The Mortgage Bankers Association said its Market Composite Index, a measure of mortgage loan application volume, decreased 11.0 percent on both a seasonally adjusted and an unadjusted basis from one week earlier. The Refinance Index dropped 10 percent from the previous week and was 76 percent lower than the same week one year ago. [refiappschart] The Purchase Index fell 12 percent on both an adjusted and unadjusted basis and was 15 percent below its level during the same week in May 2021. [purchaseappschart] “Mortgage applications decreased for the first time in three weeks, as mortgage rates – despite declining last week – remained over two percentage points higher than a year ago and close to the highest levels since 2009. For borrowers looking to refinance, the current level of rates continues to be a significant disincentive,” said Joel Kan, MBA’s Associate Vice President of Economic and Industry Forecasting. “Purchase applications fell 12 percent last week, as prospective homebuyers have been put off by the higher rates and worsening affordability conditions. Furthermore, general uncertainty about the near-term economic outlook, as well as recent stock market volatility, may be causing some households to delay their home search.”
Homebuilder confidence may still be higher than almost any time before the pandemic, but it's now lower than any time since. The post-pandemic lows arrived abruptly with today's release of the Housing Market Index from Wells Fargo and the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB). The month-over-month decline was the largest in 2 years and is one of only 3 other times that the index has fallen by 8 points since records began in 1985. Pain points for the housing market are no mystery with prices continuing to increase by roughly 20% year-over-year and mortgage rates hitting the highest levels since 2009 in recent weeks. The net effect is a massive hit to affordability that increasingly sidelines would-be buyers. NAHB notes less than half of new and existing homes are affordable for the average family. Things are even worse for first time and entry-level buyers. The builder confidence index has several components, and they can take turns influencing the headline number. These include current sales, expectations for sales over the next 6 months, and buyer traffic. All three dropped significantly, with a 10 point decline in the 6 month outlook edging out the 9 point drop in buyer traffic and the 8 point drop in current sales.