WASHINGTON (AP) — Average rates on U. S. long-term fixed mortgages remained steady for a second straight week, giving prospective home buyers more time to lock in historically low levels.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate on the 30-year loan remained unchanged at 4.4 percent this week. That is a full percentage point higher than in early May, when rates neared record lows. Still, rates remain low by historical standards.

The average on the 15-year fixed loan edged up to 3.44 percent from 3.43 percent.

Mortgage rates spiked in June after Chairman Ben Bernanke indicated that the Federal Reserve could slow its bond purchases this year. The purchases have helped keep long-term interest rates low, encouraging more home buying. Despite the recent rate increases, mortgages remain a bargain for borrowers who qualify.

Low rates have boosted home sales and prices, contributing to a housing recovery that has helped drive economic growth this year.

Greater demand, along with a tight supply of homes for sale, has pushed up prices. It also has led to more home construction, which has created jobs.

Confidence among U. S. builders is at its highest level in nearly eight years, fueled by optimism that demand for new homes will drive sales growth into next year. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index released Thursday reflected the brighter sales outlook.

The index jumped to 59 this month from 56 in July. It was the fourth consecutive monthly gain. A reading above 50 indicates more builders view sales conditions as good rather than poor.

Mortgage rates tend to follow the yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which has risen on speculation that the Fed could slow its bond-buying stimulus. The rate on the 10-year note rose to 2.79 percent Thursday morning, its highest level since July 2011.

To calculate average mortgage rates, Freddie Mac surveys lenders across the country on Monday through Wednesday each week. The average doesn't include extra fees, known as points, which most borrowers must pay to get the lowest rates. One point equals 1 percent of the loan amount.

The average fee for a 30-year mortgage was unchanged at 0.7 point. The fee for a 15-year loan slipped to 0.6 point from 0.7 point.

The average rate on a one-year adjustable-rate mortgage rose to 2.67 percent from 2.62 percent. The fee edged up to 0.4 point from 0.3 point.

The average rate on a five-year adjustable mortgage increased to 3.23 percent from 3.19 percent. The fee held at 0.5.

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