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Rate on 30-year home loans unchanged at 3.53%

– The average U.S. rate on 30-year fixed mortgages was unchanged last week near historic lows, while the average rate on 15-year loans fell. Low mortgage rates could help strengthen the housing recovery.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the rate on 30-year loans stayed at 3.53 percent. That’s still near the 3.31 percent rate reached in November, the lowest in records dating to 1971.

The rate on 15-year fixed mortgages dropped to 2.77 percent from 2.81 percent the previous week. The record low is 2.63 percent.

Cheap mortgages are encouraging more people to buy homes and refinance, trends that could help boost the economy this year.

Increased sales are helping push home prices up steadily, which makes consumers feel wealthier and more likely to spend. In addition, a limited supply of houses for sale has created demand for new construction, which has made builders more confident.

And when people refinance, that typically leads to lower monthly mortgage payments and even more spending. Consumer spending drives nearly 70 percent of economic activity.

Still, the housing market has a long way to a full recovery. And many people are unable to take advantage of the low rates, either because they can’t qualify for stricter lending rules or they lack the money to meet larger down payment requirements.

To calculate average mortgage rates, Freddie Mac surveys lenders across the country Monday through Wednesday of each week. The average doesn’t include extra fees, known as points, which most borrowers must pay to get the lowest rates. One point equals 1 percent of the loan amount.

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