Mortgage rates eased this week but the housing market "is struggling to regain traction" even though rates remain near historic lows, Freddie Mac Chief Economist Frank Nothaft said as the mortgage giant released its weekly rate survey.

Single-family housing starts dipped slightly in January to an annualized pace of 413,000 units, the lowest rate since May 2009, and homebuilder confidence remains near record lows, Nothaft said, citing the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index.

Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 5 percent with an average 0.7 point for the week ending Feb. 17, down from 5.05 percent last week but up from 4.93 percent a year ago.

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage hit a low in Freddie Mac records dating to 1971 of 4.17 percent during the week ending Nov. 11. Until 2009, the survey had never recorded rates for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages below 5 percent, Nothaft noted.

The average rate on 15-year fixed-rate loans was 4.27 percent with 0.7 point, down from 4.29 percent last week and 4.33 percent a year ago. The 15-year fixed-rate loan hit a low in records dating back to 1991 of 3.57 percent in November.

Rates on 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) loans averaged 3.87 percent with an average 0.6 point, down from 3.92 percent last week and 4.12 percent a year ago. The 5-year ARM hit a low in records dating to 2005 of 3.25 percent in November.

The average rate for 1-year Treasury-indexed ARMs was 3.39 percent with 0.6 point, up from 3.35 percent last week but down from 4.23 percent a year ago.

In a separate survey tracking loan application volume, the Mortgage Bankers Association said demand for purchase loans was down a seasonally adjusted 5.9 percent during the week ending Feb. 11 compared to the previous week. Purchase loan demand was down 18.2 percent from a year ago.

"Buyers have not returned to the market as rising rates have reduced affordability, to some extent," said Michael Fratantoni, MBA’s vice president of research and economics, in a statement.

Demand for refinancings was also down 11.4 percent from the previous week, to the lowest point since the week ending July 3, 2009, the MBA said.

In a Jan. 14 forecast, MBA economists projected rates on 30-year fixed-rate loans will climb to an average of 5.5 percent during the fourth quarter of 2011, and to an average of 6.1 percent during the final three months of 2012.

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