Following a couple months of speculation, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty brought in some new regulations designed to tighten up lending practices and cool off the housing market in Canada. The government didn’t go so far as to reduce maximum amortization from 35 to 30 years, or increase minimum down payment requirements higher than 5%, but did take the following three actions:
- Borrowers must now qualify for a five-year fixed rate, even if they are applying for a variable rate mortgage. Variable rate mortgages are based on the prime rate, which is at a rock-bottom 2.25% currently, and is expected to rise over the next 12-18 months. By qualifying buyers at the higher 5-year fixed rate, it is hoped that a cushion will be created such that borrowers can still afford the payments when the prime rate increases, as it will inevitably do.
- Home owners who want to take out some equity from their homes when they refinance their mortgage will no longer be able to take out up to 95% of the lending value of their homes, only up to 90%. This is designed to prevent home owners from using their homes as an ATM and getting in over their heads if their property value declines. Probably not a bad idea, but it will prevent some home owners from paying off high-interest debt with low-interest mortgage funds. Overall, I’m happy about this one.
- Purchasers of non-owner-occupied real estate, ie, investment properties, will now need 20% down instead of 5%. The government says this is to prevent speculation by investors. I’m of two minds on this move. It will certainly put a squeeze on buyers of investment properties, which may in turn lead to fewer rental properties available and hence a corresponding rise in rents.
The reader needs to bear in mind that the above rules are for CMHC-insured mortgages only. Private insurers like Genworth and AIG Guaranty may be more flexible. Mortgage insurance is mandated on all mortgage loans in excess of 80% loan to value ratio, which offers the lender protection should the borrower default. This way, lenders are able to offer borrowers lower rates because they do not have to compensate for the additional risk of a high-ratio mortgage.
Also, most lenders qualify a buyer on a 3- or 4-year fixed rate already when applying for a variable rate mortgage, so this won’t be a huge change for most institutions.
The new rules are set to come into force April 19th. I would expect a surge in activities in the market as buyers and investors try to get in under the deadline, even though most residential, owner-occupier borrowers won’t be too affected by the changes. All they will hear is “harder to get a mortgage” and they’ll rush out to get pre-qualified and then go shopping.
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