Mortgage Originations Soar to Highest Level Since Financial Crisis

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WASHINGTON — More than 1 million homebuyers qualified for a mortgage in the third quarter, the first time since the financial crisis that lenders reached such a threshold, according to research by the Urban Institute.

Since 2013, purchase mortgage originations for owner-occupants have fluctuated around 500,000 to 700,000 loans per quarter, with 739,310 in home purchase originations in the third quarter of 2014. But the most recent estimate puts the figure at 1.04 million, according to Wei Li, a senior research associate at the institute in Washington. (The loan data excludes refinancings and investor loans.)

Li said that the level was surprising but that he suspects the surge was due to expectations that the Federal Reserve was going to raise interest rates.

"This rush into the mortgage market may be temporary," Li said. (The Fed raised rates slightly in the last quarter of 2015.)

CoreLogic data also shows home purchase originations exceeded 1 million in the third quarter, up from 879,920 in the year-earlier quarter, according to Sam Khater, deputy chief economist at CoreLogic.

"That is consistent with the rise in home sales," Khater said in an interview. "The housing market has been slowly improving."

The reduction in Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance premiums in January 2014 is "bringing new buyers into the market," Khater said.

The FHA guaranteed 174,180 single-family loans in the third quarter, an increase of 93,060 loans from the like period in 2014, according to FHA data.

However, he said the agency is not stealing market share from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mae. "It is playing a large role than usual," Khater said.

Fannie bought 297,000 purchase mortgages from lenders in the third quarter, up by 32,000 loans from the same quarter a year earlier. Freddie acquired 208,000 purchase mortgages in the third quarter, up 14,000 year over year.

Khater said that he isn't noticing a loosening of credit standards. The economists at the Urban Institute haven't seen any signs of easing either.

The loans "are superprime," Li said. "That tells me it's probably a demand-side story. The higher-end spectrum of borrowers is eager to venture into the market."

Researchers at the Urban Institute created a Housing Credit Availability Index that factors in credit scores, down payments, debt-to-income ratios and loan product risk in determining credit risk or tightness.

"Mortgage credit today is much tighter that it was at the peak of the housing bubble in 2005 and 2006, which is expected and appropriate. But it is also significantly tighter than it was in 2001, prior to the housing crisis," the Institute said in a post on its website last week. "Our Housing Credit Availability Index continues to show the market is taking less than half the credit risk it was taking in the pre-crisis period."

Meanwhile, recent volatility in the stock market has raised concerns that homebuying may slow this year.

"The big question for 2016 is what is going to happen to the top end of the market," Khater said. "The wealth effect from the stock market has been very strong for the past four years. Now that seems to be going in reverse."

Homebuilders with mortgage banking subsidiaries also acknowledge that credit standards are tight.

During a conference call last week, Richard Dugas, chairman, president and chief executive of PulteGroup, told investors and equity analysts that underwriting standards and credit conditions "continue to be tight."

"Maybe on the margin it continues to ease just very, very slightly. But overall not much change," he said.

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