House and interest rate dice balancing between hands concept

Mortgages to Markets: The Fed Rate's Ripple Effect on Real Estate

Ryan Letzeiser
Nov 3, 2023

The Federal Reserve has two primary missions: maintaining moderate long-term interest rates and stabilizing prices. Recently, inflation has taken center stage in the Fed’s economic discussions. While rapid price increases are affected by several factors, the Fed’s direct influence lies in its control of the federal funds rate.

This rate, which dictates overnight borrowing between banks, indirectly influences the movement of several markets’ interest rates. Even modest increases—less than a percentage point—can have a significant impact on borrowing costs, especially for larger loans like mortgages.

Since March 2022, the Federal Reserve has implemented a series of rate hikes, amounting to a 5.25% increase that put significant downward pressure on inflation. These rate hikes aim to make borrowing more expensive, which, in turn, reduces spending. The theory suggests that if demand decreases, sellers will either lower prices or cap them until demand rebounds.  The challenge comes when we are experiencing very low rates that suddenly spike and the market struggles to regain its balance.

Real Estate Financing in a Shifting Landscape

While the Fed Rate doesn’t directly change mortgage rates, its effect on inflation and demand is what puts pressure on the real estate market.

Understanding DSCRs

The debt service coverage ratio (DSCR) is a financial metric for rental homes that measures the ability of a rental property to generate enough cash flow to cover its debt payments. For a property to be financially sensible, you should have some money left over after your mortgage, taxes, insurance, and other expenses are paid. 

When the federal funds rate rises, it becomes more expensive for banks to borrow money. A higher federal funds rate can lead to a lower DSCR because it increases the cost of debt. This means that lenders may require a higher DSCR to approve a loan, making it more difficult for borrowers to qualify for financing.

Historically, 20% was enough to cover the cost of investment down payments. However, a bank’s coverage ratio may now require you to put 35% down, shrinking the amount of equity in the market to invest in these properties. 

In some cases, investors are being confronted by 40% coverage ratios, resulting in  60/40 loans. Therefore, the amount of equity used to buy two homes last year is now often only buying one. That means less equity in the market, which in turn means fewer sales. 

What About Rising Rent Prices?

Though rent prices have gone up, the cost of property expenses and loan payments doesn't always increase at the same rate. If your rental income can't cover the loan and operating expenses, there’s no financial sense in investing in that property. 

Zillow reports U.S. rent is 3.3% higher than it was a year ago. However, the rate at which rent is increasing has slowed since February 2022. That's because many people can't afford to pay more rent than they already do. In that same vein, the Fed rate is roughly 2.25% higher than it was this time a year ago.

To raise rent substantially, renters' salaries would need to increase. But higher salaries create higher inflation, perpetuating the economic cycle the Fed is trying to combat.

The Insurance Impact

One of the primary ways rising interest rates affect insurance premiums is through increased construction costs. When the federal funds rate rises, borrowing becomes more expensive for developers and builders. As a result, the cost of constructing or renovating properties tends to go up. 

This increase in construction costs can lead to higher replacement cost values for properties, which directly influences insurance premiums. Insurers need to adjust their premium rates to reflect the elevated replacement costs, ensuring that they can adequately cover any potential claims.

In some cases, when rates rise, demand in a region may decrease, leading to lower property values. As a result, the estimated cost of rebuilding or repairing a property may also drop, prompting insurance companies to reduce their premiums to match the reduced replacement cost.

How to Win in a High-rate Market

If you are already investing or are looking to invest in real estate, you should prepare for potential volatility as the market adjusts to a new environment each time Fed Rates shift. Staying focused on your long-term goals can help you ride out rate hikes, cuts, and market swings that follow.

Financial advisor looking at paperwork with a couple

Embracing the “Fixer-upper”

The most opportunistic properties, those with significant profit potential, now often lie in the realm of substantial renovation and improvement projects.

Investors willing to take on these properties, perhaps from homeowners who haven't updated their homes in decades, can create value by enhancing these spaces. While this requires both financial resources and the right connections, it's a path to profitability in a market where straightforward, turnkey investments are harder to come by.

Purchasing a fixer-upper can also allow investors to build equity through renovations and improvements. As they enhance the property's condition and functionality, its market value can increase substantially. This built-up equity can provide a cushion against potential market fluctuations caused by rising interest rates.

Divide and Conquer

Local investors are becoming increasingly influential, especially given their ability to meet higher equity requirements. Spreading investments across different property types or locations can also help mitigate risk by protecting against localized market fluctuations. 

Some might be stable income-generating assets, while others could be more speculative with the potential for higher returns but also higher risk. The key is to strike a balance between the two.

Playing the Long Game

Additionally, those who anticipate long-term inflation may find solace in the prospect of property values rising over the next decade. If and when the Fed eventually lowers interest rates, investors could benefit from refinancing at more favorable terms, aligning with a potential continued increase in rental income and more favorable margins. 

Protect Your Investments

Despite market shifts and inflation, an ever-evolving landscape presents an opportunity to re-evaluate your investments and consider how they align with your long-term financial goals. As you navigate these waters, it's vital to safeguard your investments.

Having the right insurance can provide you with a sense of security and peace of mind. By taking control of your coverage, you can make sure that you are getting the most out of your providers, maximizing your protection, and ensuring that your investments remain secure.

In a dynamic market, your peace of mind comes from a well-rounded strategy. So now is the time to make sure both you and the portfolio you poured your heart into are ready for the next wave.