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30-year mortgage loans dip to 3.45%

– Average U.S. rates on fixed mortgages fell last week and remained near historic lows, a trend that has supported a recovery in housing.

Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate for 30-year loans fell to 3.54 percent from 3.63 percent the previous week. That’s near the 3.31 percent reached in November, which was the lowest rate on records dating to 1971.

The average rate on 30-year loans has been below 4 percent now for a full year.

The average rate on 15-year fixed mortgages slipped last week to 2.72 percent from 2.79 percent the previous week. The record low is 2.63 percent.

The lowest mortgage rates in decades are spurring more home purchases and refinancing. That’s helped the broader economy. Increased sales are also pushing home prices higher.

As the spring home-buying season begins, low mortgage rates could spur more people to buy homes or refinance. Refinancing often lowers monthly mortgage payments and leaves consumers with more spending money.

The National Association of Realtors reported Thursday that sales increased 0.8 percent in February from January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.98 million. That was the highest sales pace since November 2009, when a temporary tax credit for homebuyers had boosted sales.

Still, some people are unable to take advantage of the low mortgage rates, either because they can’t qualify for stricter lending rules or they lack the money for larger down payment requirements. First-time buyers made up just 30 percent of sales in February, the Realtors’ group said. In healthier economies, they make up more than 40 percent of sales.

To calculate average mortgage rates, Freddie Mac surveys lenders across the country Monday through Wednesday 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.