September 19, 2020

How to score the perfect mortgage

In this excerpt from the MoneySense Guide to Buying and Selling Your Home, a book in the “Best of MoneySense” series, writer Rachel Mendleson cuts through the jargon and explains how to find the mortgage that’s right for you.

Lauren Chender likes to shop around. So when she and her husband were trying to figure out what kind of mortgage to get on their first home, she took to the Internet and began comparing the interest rates posted on various bank websites. But as the Toronto resident did more research, she discovered that it might be possible to get even lower rates through an independent mortgage broker, or by speaking with a financial institution’s mortgage department directly. Even when she found a good rate, she discovered that the tough decisions just kept coming. Should she go with a variable or fixed rate? What about the amortization period? “It’s overwhelming,” says Chender, who wound up using a broker to secure the mortgage on her semi-detached Victorian. “There was a lot to know.”


Chender is hardly alone. Despite the fact that how you finance your home will have a significant impact on everything from what you can afford to how long you’ll be in debt, the complexity of mortgages can make it difficult to arrive at an informed decision. But by understanding what’s at stake, you can cut through the jargon and weigh the options to find a mortgage that’s right for you.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider when thinking about how to finance your home is what taking out a mortgage really means. As Rob McLister, editor of Canadian Mortgage Trends, explains, “Mortgages are definitely among the cheapest money you can borrow, simply because they are secured by quality assets.” But they are also a tremendous responsibility, and something that can greatly increase what you end up paying for your home. While an interest rate of 4 per cent on a $200,000 loan may not seem like a lot today, that changes dramatically when you consider that repayment will likely be spread over decades.

With that in mind, the first step to choosing the right mortgage is identifying the lender whose terms work best for you. While prospective home buyers often begin with their financial institution, your search shouldn’t stop there. As Sarah Daniels, a Vancouver-area realtor, points out, “The lenders are in competition for you.” She advises using a mortgage broker, who will “shop you around” to all the lenders, free of charge. (Mortgage brokers are paid a finder’s fee by the lender. There’s no charge to the home buyer for a pre-approval and no obligation.) And whether you opt for a broker or not, a second opinion never hurts. “It always helps to get one or two other quotes to keep everyone honest,” says McLister.

It’s a good idea to get pre-approved for a mortgage before you start house hunting. That way, you can get a sense of your budget, and avoid falling in love with a property you can’t afford. To give you a pre-approval, lenders factor in your income, type of job and credit history. They also take into account how much you have to put toward a down payment, and any other debts you may have. The amount you are pre-approved for is the upper limit of what the lender will allow you to borrow. Add that to your down payment, and you’ve got the total amount you have to put toward a home. If you have bad credit, are self-employed or want to borrow more than what a bank or credit union will approve, you may want to consider using an alternative lender. But while second- or third-tier lenders (examples include Equitable Trust and Aaron Acceptance Corp.) have looser requirements, the mortgages they issue come with higher interest rates (sometimes much higher), so they are not generally recommended for first-time buyers.

The specifics of the mortgage you select will depend on what makes the most financial sense, as well as your personal preference. One important decision is whether to go with a fixed rate of interest, which is locked in for the entire term of the mortgage (usually five years), or a variable rate, which can change depending on market forces. In today’s low interest rate environment, “variable rates are initially cheaper upfront,” says McLister. The risk is that they could rise far above the fixed rate later in the term, increasing your monthly payments. You’ll also have to set the amortization period, which is the theoretical length of time you have to pay off your mortgage in full, assuming you never move. Bear in mind that while a longer amortization (as of March 2011, the maximum for an insured mortgage in Canada is 30 years) may give you a bigger mortgage or lower monthly payments, it’ll also mean paying more interest in the long run. If you want the flexibility to make additional lump-sum payments outside of your scheduled monthly (or bimonthly) payments, this must be stipulated in your mortgage. And beware that if you break your mortgage before the term is up, you’ll have to pay a penalty–usually three months’ interest for variable-rate mortgages, more for fixed-rate mortgages. (This doesn’t apply for open mortgages, which are mainly for homeowners who plan to sell within a few months.) Mortgage insurance is one of the extra costs to buying a home that can be easy to overlook. But if you are putting less than 20 per cent down, your lender will require that you purchase an insurance policy to protect them in case you don’t hold up your end of the deal. Calculated on a percentage of the total mortgage, your insurance premium will depend on how well qualified a borrower you are, and can amount to thousands of dollars. As Daniels observes in her book, for a $450,000 mortgage, even the most qualified borrower who gets the lowest rate (which she sets at 1.5 per cent) would be on the hook for an additional $6,750 in insurance.

If you’re lucky, your family may offer to help with financing. But it’s important to understand how the contribution factors in. A family gift is considered a traditional source of down payment, which is ideal. It will increase the size of the mortgage you can get or allow you to pay for a greater proportion of your home up front. But if the family help is a loan, your down payment is considered to be non-traditional, which, if you’re putting down less than 20 per cent, will result in slightly higher insurance premiums.

When your mortgage is up for renewal, it may be tempting to simply sign on the dotted line, and accept whatever package your lender offers you. However, not shopping around can cost you. “The bank relies on people just to sign the renewal agreement at posted rates. As soon as you do that, you’ve lost thousands of dollars by not negotiating,” advises Vancouver mortgage broker Alma Pasic. Don’t be surprised if you need a refresher course. “It’s like you’re doing it for the first time, because everything has changed,” she says. “It’s hard to keep up–even for us.” RACHEL MENDLESON Sidebar: Cost Cutter If you can live with the uncertainty, a variable-rate mortgage has historically saved home buyers money over a term of five years or more. A 2008 study led by Moshe Milevsky, a professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, found that variable rates would have saved Canadian borrowers money on a five-year term more than 77 per cent of the time between 1950 and 2007, and chopped a year off the amortization period. By taking on a more predictable, fixed-rate mortgage, you are offloading risk to the lender, and that comes at a price. You might sleep easier, though.

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