CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Low mortgage rates and increased home values lead some local banking officials to believe the time to buy a home is now.Don Merlo, managing partner with Express Mortgage, added that interest rates could begin to climb in 2014."So people need to take advantage of this," Merlo said. "Rates are low right now, but they could turn around anytime with a change in the country's fiscal policy."The 30-year-fixed interest rate is currently hovering around 3.5 percent, said David Rathbun, senior director of loan origination for the West Virginia Housing Development Fund.Although this is up slightly from the 3.25 rate from earlier in 2012, it still can equal substantial savings for homebuyers, Rathbun said.Rathbun does not believe interest rates will begin to decline anytime in the near future, but unlike Merlo he does not believe they will increase within the next two years."I think they'll stay the same," he said.The real estate market in the Kanawha Valley and, actually, in much of West Virginia, has remained stable throughout the recession and the rupture of the housing bubble, Rathbun said.However, the Eastern Panhandle did see a significant decline in the housing market."But it's coming back there now," he said.Although interest rates are still hovering around their lowest points ever, most of the people approaching the West Virginia Housing Development Fund offices are doing so to refinance their homes rather than purchase one, Rathbun said.In 2012, the quasi-state agency provided state 1,500 loans, he said. He estimated that 35 percent were to first-time homebuyers and 50 percent were to owners who wished to refinance."First-time homebuyers are really our focus, but if a family wants to lower their payments, we'll do that too," Rathbun added.In 2012, the agency provided about $173 million in loans - more than the typical amount doled out in a year's time, he said."The average amount we give in a year since I've been here is about $150 million," Rathbun said. "It's been a pretty good year."Although interest rates are not at their lowest point in history (Merlo has seen rates as low as 2.25 percent for a 10- or 15-year fixed mortgage in his tenure with Express Mortgage) they are still low enough to encourage buyers, he said.Merlo is also seeing the "purchase market" pick up considerably, he said. And unlike Rathbun, he is seeing fewer people looking to refinance."The people that were going to refinance their homes have already done so," Merlo said. "For the last two years, we were slightly weighted toward refinances, but that trend has reversed itself and we're back to heavier purchases." The low interest rates and rebounding home values make Merlo believe the housing market will get stronger as the year progresses."This speaks for a pretty positive outlook for the purchase market here in the Kanawha Valley," he said.The time to buy a home is now, Merlo believes, because those wishing to sell a home are more likely to negotiate on price."Because there are fewer buyers in the winter, sellers are more willing to negotiate on a price than they are a few months down the road," Merlo said. Contact writer Paul Fallon at email@example.com or 304-348-4817. Follow him at www.twitter.com/PaulBFallon.