National Housing Market Outlook

Falling Mortgage Rates Lift Home Sales

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Alex Thomas

February 16, 2024

Builders report unusually strong sales in December and January as mortgage rates fall. The resale market will likely follow.

The holidays came early for builders and the resale housing market. As Fed commentary steadily grew dovish, mortgage rates plunged -100 bps from early November to year’s end. Mortgage rates have been hovering in the mid-6% range for weeks, as shown below in Optimal Blue’s weekly purchase mortgage loan lock data. The rule of thumb is that every -1% drop in rates equates to a -10% drop in monthly payments.

The result of improved affordability has been predictable: new home sales popped in December and January, and resale sales have begun to pick up, too, as seen in Optimal Blue’s data.

Happy holidays for builders

The mortgage rate drop brought some early holiday cheer to housing in December and January, typically some of the slowest months for new home sales. Builders reported 3.3 sales per community in January, +10% higher than the prior year and +38% higher than the long-term average for January.

We’ve reported on the popularity of mortgage rate buydown programs, which can often save buyers hundreds of dollars on monthly payments. With mortgage rates in the mid-6% range, builders can more easily buy down rates to 5.5% or below. We have shown that this is the magic mortgage rate for getting potential buyers off the fence.

As Optimal Blue’s weekly data shows, the share of loans locked in at rates under 5.5% in San Antonio, TX, rose to a staggering 46% by early February, a significant increase from the 29% we reported in early December. San Antonio is a large market for builders, and their rate-buydown programs have produced the bulk of the loans locked in at under 5.5%. We expect the new home market to keep outperforming the resale market in sales volume while mortgage rates stay below 7%, even as mortgage rates remain elevated relative to recent history.

Resale market thawing

After months of low sales volumes due to a lack of sellers, leading indicators of existing home sales are starting to bud. Our survey of over 1,000 real estate agents we fielded in early February captured an improvement in sentiment: 55% of agents expect strong sales over the next six months, up from just 20% in October.

Don’t expect existing home sales data to rise quickly, though: most freely available data sources report existing home sale closings, which often lag purchase activity by multiple months. This is why NAR reported a decrease in month-over-month sales volume in December. Using timelier data like Optimal Blue’s loan lock database, we can see an increase in activity due to lower rates.

We still have a long way to go before the resale market returns to normal. Agents tell us that sellers are waiting for rates to drop even further before listing, which will keep sales muted until the Fed starts cutting interest rates. The Fed has signaled that they expect to cut interest rates by roughly 50 bps in 2024, though the timing of cuts is uncertain and subject to change as fresh macroeconomic data is released.  

We’re watching you, economy.

While mortgage rates strongly influence housing demand, they are far from the only relevant factor. History shows that when the economy is otherwise healthy, sales volumes tend to move inversely with mortgage rates.

But external factors can warp this relationship. Although our base case for the economy does not include a recession, we haven’t ruled out that possibility entirely. 

We track more than 400 leading economic and housing market indicators each month in our US Housing Analysis and Forecast report, which we use to inform our thesis and forecasts for the next several years. For more information, get in touch with our Client Services team.

Our research and consulting teams are helping clients unlock new insights to better navigate the current environment. Our research team helps for-sale, for-rent, and building products executives and investors cost-effectively stay on top of quickly changing market conditions, and our consulting team applies this knowledge to specific property and strategy decisions.

Optimal Blue is the market leader in mortgage secondary marketing technology.

The company facilitates transactions among mortgage market participants through its Marketplace Platform, actionable data, and technology vendor connections. The platform supports a range of functions for originators and investors to automate and optimize core processes related to product, pricing, and eligibility, hedge analytics, MSR valuation, loan trading, social media compliance, and counterparty oversight. The company’s data services provide granular insights on mortgage pricing and trading in real time, as well as competitive insight for originators and investors to benchmark their pricing, volumes, and more.

The company’s premier products are used by nearly 70% of the top 500 mortgage lenders in the U.S. For more information on Optimal Blue’s end-to-end secondary marketing automation, visit 

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About The Author

Alex Thomas photo
Alex Thomas
Senior Research Analyst, Macro
Alex assists our research team in tracking macro-level economic and housing trends and data. He also helps cover the fix-and-flip space.

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