Mortgage rates are stable and affordable after December’s brief surge

Hundred dollar bill folded in shape of house

Mortgage rates are about a half point higher than the record lows reached last fall.

The average cost of a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage -- the most popular type of home loan -- was 4.94% in our latest survey of major lenders taken Jan. 12.

By any historical standard, that's still quite cheap. It's just not quite as cheap as the 4.42% average reached in early November.

You can see how that increase has affected mortgage rates in your area by searching our extensive database of home loans.

Until recently, it was easy to find lenders in most cities offering 30-year, fixed-rate loans for as little as 4.25% with no points and fees of $2,000 or less.

Now the best deals on those kinds of loans are running 4.625% to 4.75%.

That means principal and interest payments would increase from $492 a month for every $100,000 borrowed (based on a rate of 4.25%) to $522 a month (based on a rate of 4.75%).

Our mortgage calculator can show you the payment for any loan, any amount, rate and term.

Interest rates plunged to record lows this fall after the slow economic recovery and the possibility of several European nations defaulting on their debt sent investors fleeing for the safety of Treasury bills or other debt guaranteed by the U.S. government.

That includes mortgages, because 96% of all new home loans are now backed in some way by an agency of the federal government.

When the Federal Reserve announced in early November that it would try to drive rates even lower by purchasing another $600 billion in long-term Treasury bills, it appeared mortgages would remain incredibly cheap through the winter and probably most of next year.

But rates started inching up when the European Union and International Monetary Fund committed to borrowing large sums of money to prop up debt-ridden Greece and Ireland.

Then, in early December, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans agreed not only to extend all of the Bush tax cuts that were going to expire at the end of the year but to lower payroll and estate taxes and extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

That deal, which quickly won congressional approval and became law, will add an additional $900 billion to the federal deficit over the next two years.

Big institutional investors such as hedge and pension funds that will be expected to finance that borrowing were clearly surprised by the sudden willingness of the White House, and especially conservative lawmakers, to add so much to the national debt.

They demanded higher returns on all types of long-term debt -- including mortgages.

By mid-December, the average cost of a 30-year loan had risen to 5.00% for the first time since May. But that appears to be as high as mortgage rates are going to go for the foreseeable future.

You may also have heard that banks and mortgage companies have tightened their requirements for getting a mortgage after unwisely lowering their standards during the housing boom.

It's true.

Borrowers are being subjected to endless demands and delays as they try to win approval for their loans, and about half of all applicants are still being turned down.

You'll have the best chance of getting approved, with the least amount of hassle and the lowest possible rate, if you:

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