Local homeowners scramble to take advantage of low mortgage rates

With mortgage rates plummeting to historic lows, Beaufort County lenders are experiencing a sharp increase in applications from homeowners seeking to refinance their loans.

The average rate on a 15-year fixed mortgage dropped to 3.28 percent, the lowest ever for that loan, according to figures released Thursday by Freddie Mac. At 4.01 percent, the 30-year fixed mortgage rate is the lowest since 1951.

The rates are enticing homeowners and keeping local lending agencies busy.

"We're a little bombarded right now, but we're getting through it," said Tracy Caldwell, a spokeswoman for Hilton Head Mortgage.

Caldwell said the uptick in refinance applications has brought a corresponding delay in processing them.

"We're used to dealing with one or two a month; now we're seeing six or seven," Caldwell said. "The process is taking 30 to 45 days now -- usually closer to 30 -- but we tell (applicants) it's worth it for the wait."

Jan Malinowski, a senior vice president at Palmetto State Bank in Beaufort, said his branch has seen a "good volume" of new applicants this month but declined to give a specific number.

Despite the declining mortgage rates, sales of new homes nationwide dropped for the fourth straight month in August, according to a statement released this week by the federal Commerce Department. Sales in the Hilton Head Island area, however, rose 21.9 percent in August, compared to August 2010, according to S.C. Realtors. They dropped 10.4 percent in the Beaufort area.

According to Scott Ely of Spartanburg-based S.C. Mortgage Associates, which operates a branch in Bluffton, prospective buyers shouldn't expect the new rates to get any lower -- but don't expect to get that from him in writing.

"I think (interest rates) have just about bottomed out, but I don't have a crystal ball. About two months ago, I'd have told you the same thing," he said with a laugh.

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