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Variable vs fixed mortgages? It’s complicated

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Variable vs fixed mortgages? It’s complicated

Canadians are now into the busiest season for real estate. More homes change hands during the spring than at any other time of year. One decision homeowners will have to make about their new purchase is the kind of mortgage they will sign up for. Historically, variable rates have saved money, whereas the five-year fixed has provided the stability many conservative homebuyers want.

But that decision is getting complicated. Canada’s biggest bank, RBC, has cut its five-year fixed rate. Several banks, such as TD Bank and BMO Bank of Montreal, have quickly followed and cut their five-year fixed to the same level.

The move by some of Canada’s commercial banks is overdue. Unlike variable rate loans that are affected by the Bank of Canada’s benchmark rate, fixed rates are tied to the bond market. Bond yields have been dropping for the last two months.

Rate savings

The yield for the Government of Canada’s benchmark five-year bond fell from a high of 2.48 per cent on Oct. 5, 2018 to a low of 1.76 per cent on Jan. 3, 2019. This means it’s cheaper for commercial banks to borrow money at a fixed rate. Therefore, they can offer those interest rate savings to their mortgage customers.

The cut to fixed rates has shortened the spread between the variable and fixed rate mortgage. The Bank of Canada usually raises rates by 25 basis points or a 0.25 of a per cent each time. With the BoC hinting at raising rates 2019, one rate hike would mean your variable rate mortgage would become more expensive to service, than if you had locked in at today’s fixed rate.

For the first time in many years Canadian mortgage seekers are faced with a unique challenge. Previously going variable often meant saving money over the long term. Those who had the stomach to handle interest rates going up and down were the perfect candidate for a variable rate mortgage. For those who wanted security of knowing what their payments will look like, the fiveyear fixed has always been popular.

Rock bottom

The other problem is rates have been at rock bottom for so long that for many homebuyers it’s hard to see rates rise anywhere close to normal. But if we look back to before the financial crisis, before rates were slashed to record low levels, the prime rate at commercial banks was 6.25 per cent in July 2007. At that level, rates were considered much more normal.That rate is 2.5 per cent higher than what prime is today.

What new homebuyers and those renewing their mortgage term have to ask themselves is, could I afford this mortgage loan if rates were two to three percentage points higher?

Canadians need to prepare for higher rates, by making lump sum payments and accelerating their regular payments. Take advantage of lower interest rates, and if I was in the market for a mortgage today, I would strongly consider locking into the special fixed rates being offered by banks, because it seems it is almost guaranteed to beat the variable rate in the next five years.

Rubina Ahmed-Haq is a journalist and personal finance expert. She is HPG’s Finance Editor. She regularly appears on CBC Radio and TV. She is a contributor on CTV Your Morning and Global Toronto. She has a BA from York University, received her post graduate journalism diploma from Humber College and has completed the CSC. Follow her on Twitter @alwayssavemoney.

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