U.S. mortgage applications rose for a second consecutive week, reflecting a rush by consumers to lock in loans as interest rates rose to a near four-year high, an industry trade group said on Wednesday.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted index of mortgage application activity for the week ended March 31 increased 7.2 percent to 612.8 from the previous week's 571.7.

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Borrowing costs on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages, excluding fees, averaged 6.49 percent, up 0.13 percentage point from the previous week, its highest level since the week ended June 14, 2002 when it reached 6.53 percent.

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, the industry benchmark, was more than 1 percentage point above its 2005 low of 5.47 percent of June last year. The rate's 2005 high was 6.33 percent, reached in November.

The MBA's seasonally adjusted purchase mortgage index — widely considered a timely gauge of U.S. home sales — rose to 438.2, up 8.4 percent from the previous week's 404.1 but below its year-ago level of 446.0.

REFINANCINGS UP, FIRST GAIN IN 4 WEEKS

The group's seasonally adjusted index of refinancing applications increased 5.3 percent to 1,640.8, its first gain in four weeks, compared to 1,558.4 the previous week. A year earlier the index stood at 1,798.8.

The refinance share of mortgage activity decreased to 36.6 percent of total applications from 37.3 percent the previous week. It was the lowest refinance share since the week ended July 30, 2004 when it reached 35.8 percent.

Historically low mortgage rates have fueled a five-year housing boom, helping support the U.S. economy's recovery from recession despite uncertain business investment.

Analysts differ on whether or not there is a housing bubble, but most agree that the market is cooling off from its record run.

Fixed 15-year mortgage rates averaged 6.15 percent, up from 6.00 percent the previous week. Rates on one-year adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) increased to 5.96 percent from 5.83 percent.

The MBA's survey covers about 50 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage originations. Respondents include mortgage bankers, commercial banks and thrifts.

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