Intero Insider: Why Low Interest Rates Are Still Vital to the Housing Economy

Interest rates. It's a constant topic of conversation in real estate, and this year so far is no different than the last few: We're kicking it off with some of the lowest interest rates on long-term mortgages that the market has ever seen. The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage reached an all-time low of 3.89% this month, according to a survey tracked by Freddie Mac. Two messages are important in this news for home buyers and sellers. They are:

1. Low interest rates are significant for home buyers, equating to big savings when locked in at the right time. This is a point that can actually motivate a lot of buyers to get off the fence.

For instance, let's look at a .5% increase in a mortgage rate on a 30-year mortgage for $425,000. Say our buyers could get a 4.75% interest rate when they first start their real estate search. If they indeed buy a home and lock in a mortgage at this rate, they'll end up paying $373,120.42 in total interest over the life of the loan.

But say these buyers get lost in their decision-making process and end up taking eight months to make a decision on a home. By the time they lock in their rate, they end up with a 5.25% interest rate on a 30-year mortgage for the same $425,000 loan. Now, they'll end up paying $419,871.66 in interest over the life of the loan. That's a $46,751.24 increase in the final interest bill – substantial to the average family buying a home.

Taking advantage of the lowest rates possible is a key message that will help to motivate a lot of buyers in 2012.

2. While no one can predict when interest rates will increase or by how much, we know they inevitably will increase, but can also feel comfortable that they're not going to jump suddenly. Most analysts and industry observers expect rates to remain low as long as the economy is still in a slow recovery. That's good news for buyers and sellers alike (more affordable borrowing means more buyers in the market, in most cases).

Low interest rates alone cannot save a housing slump, or single-handedly create a boom (remember that our last boom was also fueled by very loose loan underwriting standards that created a lot demand from market segments that would not be eligible for loans under today's standards). But they're still extremely important to the recovery story. They still have a vital role. Let's not undermine that, or let that point get lost in the shuffle.