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MORTGAGE RATES AT BOTTOM, ECONOMISTS SAY

If you're refinancing your mortgage, lock in now. That's because mortgage interest rates have bottomed, economists said Friday.

On the other hand, they added, there should not be a dramatic surge in rates any time soon. Most expect rates to climb no more than one-quarter point from where they are now.

And even if rates climb a half-point, "they'll still be the best rates in the past 15 years," said Keith T. Gumbinger of HSH Associates of New Jersey, which tracks rates.

In the past week, the national average for a 30-year fixed mortgage climbed from 7.49 percent to 7.59. The average 15-year mortgage was at 7.09.

Much of the increase was tied to fears of renewed inflation, which pushes rates higher. Government reports showed rising wholesale and consumer prices, while gold prices have surged over the past few weeks.

But economists said they did not see rampant price increases on the horizon.

"I think inflation fears are overblown," said David W. Berson, chief economist for the Federal National Mortgage Association, known as Fannie Mae, which buys mortgages from lenders and resells them to investors.

"With the economy growing at between 2 and 3 percent, unemployment at 7 percent, and our major trading partners in recession, it's hard to see where the demand is" that would cause higher inflation, he said.

Nicholas S. Perna, economist for Shawmut Bank, called talk of much higher inflation "undue alarm," although he thought rates would edge up.

"If someone has been sitting on the fence about refinancing, or they have a house they want to buy but have been hemming and hawing, they probably should get their act together and buy now," he said, since rates are not likely to drop farther.

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