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) --

Freddie Mac


is out with some predictions for 2012, and front and center is the sentiment from the mortgage giant that mortgage rates will remain low in 2012.

Right now, those rates are as low as they've ever been. The

BankingMyWay Weekly Mortgage Rate tracker

stands at 4.125% for fixed 30-year mortgages and 15-year mortgages are a bargain at 3.5%, with the five-year adjustable-rate mortgage at 3.01%.

Freddie Mac is out with some predictions for 2012.

Those rates are low enough, but the chief economist at Freddie Mac says that's right where they'll stay in 2012.

Frank Nothaft, writing in a

Freddie Mac blog

this week, says rates should continue scraping the bottom at least until the middle of next year.

Nothaft's commentary also notes that the Federal Reserve policy on interest rates, which drives the mortgage rate market, should remain unchanged.

"This should keep fixed rates for 15- through 30-year product relatively low during the first half of the year, with rates edging up during the second half," he says. "Further, the Federal Reserve's August announcement that it was likely to maintain its current federal funds target through mid-2013 ensures that initial-period interest rates for one-year and various hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages will remain extraordinarily low throughout 2012."

Nothaft adds that the

U.S. housing market

should grow brighter, although not significantly so, in 2012. He expects the rental market to boost the entire housing market.

"A full-fledged recovery in the housing sector will likely elude the U.S. in 2012, but new construction and home sales are expected to be greater than in 2011," he says. "The rental market appears to be leading the housing recovery, as rents have risen in most markets, vacancies are down and property values for professionally managed complexes are up in most neighborhoods. Single-family starts may inch higher too, but no significant bounce-back in single-family construction is likely in coming quarters."

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One problem area for housing is the sales volume linked to existing homes. That market should rise by up to 5%, Nothaft says, driven by low prices. But those low prices should keep buyers away from pricier new homes, and thus help stall the overall housing market.

"A strong headwind holding back new home sales is the very affordable competition from existing homes," Nothaft adds. "Low mortgage rates and existing house prices could lead to a bump-up in sales by 3% to 5% in 2012 over the 2011 level. While encouraging, sales volume is still low, given the strong current affordability of housing."

It's not necessarily a bearish outlook. Nothaft does say that housing and the overall U.S. economy should grow (the latter by 2.5%) in 2012. But it's tepid growth, at best, and the entire housing market remains vulnerable to larger forces affecting the global economy (such as bank failures in Europe or another recession here in the U.S.).

Still, it's a rosier estimate than the housing market experienced in December 2010 going into 2011. It's not much, but Freddie Mac's outlook for 2012 is an upward one, and that means some hope for homeowners -- and especially for homebuyers -- going into the new year.

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