As Seattle home prices continued to soar to unprecedented heights over the past couple of years, homebuyers still had one savior: very low mortgage interest rates. But even that bright spot is starting to disappear, adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a home.
Rising mortgage rates that have swept the country since the election are whipping the local housing market into a frenzy during a normally slow time of year. Some buyers are finding out that they can no longer afford the same house they were approved for just months ago. And others who had been kicking the tires are frantically rushing to seal the deal on their new home, fearing interest rates will rise even higher.
New figures released Monday showed that the number of homes sold across King County soared nearly 30 percent in November compared to a year ago, with similar spikes in Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties. It was the Puget Sound region’s busiest November for home sales in 11 years.
The future isn’t looking much brighter: The number of new-home listings hasn’t kept pace with the strong sales. That’s left fewer homes available on the market, which has the potential to make competition even more fierce.
Realtors say they typically see a surge in home sales when interest rates spike, but the recent rise happened so swiftly it caught many buyers off guard and created a sense of urgency.
“They’re definitely panicking,” said Kimberly Johnston, a managing broker for John L. Scott on the Eastside. “They’re trying to close as fast as they can. I think it is fear-based for a lot of buyers. They do understand their buying power will change if (rates) continue to pick up.”
She’s seen buyers sweetening deals to speed up the process by waiving inspections or putting down more money up front.
Leah Harrison and her husband were anxious to close on a house they were eyeing in Snoqualmie after hearing interest rates could go higher. They locked in their loan interest rate Friday, concerned rates would rise again over the weekend. To secure the deal, they added an extra $10,000 onto their offer for the house.
“It makes a huge difference for us. We don’t have a huge budget so we’re really concerned about getting that rate locked in,” Harrison said. “I was afraid that the longer we wait, and the more we negotiate, the higher the rate could go.”
The average interest rate for the popular 30-year mortgage has risen about half a percentage point just in the past month and now tops 4 percent.
That may not sound like a lot, but it can add up. For the typical King County house, that higher interest rate would add an extra $45,000 to the cost of a house over 30 years. And that’s assuming a “standard” 20 percent down payment — for homebuyers who can’t afford that, the added interest would hit them even harder.
In today’s ultracompetitive local market, where about three-fourths of homes are subject to bidding wars, rising mortgage rates figure to give an even bigger leg up to those who can put in all-cash offers or afford a bigger down payment. And those relying on a mortgage to pay off nearly all of their home purchase might have to look for a cheaper house to be able to afford the costs over the long term.
“Maybe originally they were looking for 2.5 bathrooms, now maybe they’re willing to go with less,” Johnston said. With interest rates, “even half a point is a huge deal to them.”
For others, it simply means more money spent for the same house. Relocating from the East Coast, Paul Berman recently agreed to buy a house in Everett without locking in a mortgage rate and then was stunned after the interest rates continued to climb after the election.
“I ended up playing the waiting game, hoping things would calm down,” Berman said. “They really didn’t.”
He wound up waiting until last week to lock in a deal. He lessened the blow by paying more upfront — buying points to lower the interest rate — but figures the added fees, altogether, will cost him up to $10,000.
“For me, money I was planning to use for furniture or decorating went for closing costs very quickly,” Berman said. He wouldn’t have even bought the house had he known the higher interest costs were coming — but by the time they did, he had already committed to the deal and put down a deposit. “I felt like I had my feet to the fire.”
Kyle Bergquist, a mortgage-loan originator in Seattle for Guild Mortgage, says while people aren’t happy about the rising rates, the housing market is so competitive there’s often not much buyers can do about it.
“There’s not a lot of time for playing rates in the Seattle market,” Bergquist said. “If you get your offer accepted, there is maybe a two-week window” to close.
The interest rates could also affect the boom in refinancings by buyers who have been taking advantage of lower rates. In the third quarter of this year, before the election, the Seattle metro area saw a 56 percent rise in home refinances compared to a year prior, among the fastest growth in the nation, according to Attom Data Solutions, the parent company of RealtyTrac.
This is usually a boring time of year for the housing market — sales typically plummet around the holidays and prices tend to dip a little compared to the spring and summer as fewer people go out home shopping.
But 2016 hasn’t been a typical year for the housing market. The latest shock wave came after Donald Trump’s surprise win helped set off a series of economic events that led to higher treasury yields, which pushed nationwide mortgage rates to their highest point in 1½ years. Rates are still relatively low, though, compared to the historical average.
At the same time, the Federal Reserve next week is expected to increase its benchmark interest rates, which could indirectly impact mortgage rates.
Home costs locally are still a bit below their record levels reached this spring, but have not fallen in the past month, in contrast to the usual late-year slump.
King County’s median single-family house cost $550,000 in November, the same as a month before and up 10 percent in the past year. In a break from prior months, prices rose faster in the suburbs than in Seattle. The pricey area of West Bellevue saw prices soar 35 percent, the most in the region.
The median house cost $615,000 in Seattle and about $759,000 on the Eastside. Each region in the county saw prices increase except for Mercer Island.
Home values grew even faster in neighboring counties, rising 14.3 percent in the past year in Snohomish County, to just under $400,000, and 15.1 percent in Pierce County, to about $288,000.
In Kitsap County, home prices gained 9.2 percent to about $283,000.