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Variables and First-Time Homebuyers

First-time-Home-Buyers-Mortgage Here’s an article about first-time homebuyers that shows the risks some people take with their mortgage:  See Story Here

The story portrays a young couple getting their first mortgage. It talks about how cash-strapped they are, and the difficulties they’ve experienced in affording a new home.

The story then goes on to say:  “What really helped? The 2.75% interest rate they were offered. It ultimately allowed them to move from a $1,800-a-month apartment into their own home.”

The couple then warns: “But we don’t have a lot of [wiggle] room.  We can go up to 4%, but then we’re done.”

So, illogically enough, they chose a variable-rate mortgage.

The person who recommended a variable to these folks should be examined.  A variable–rate mortgage is the last option a risk-susceptible homeowner should be considering.  Prime rate can move 1.25% before you know it.

In Canada’s current cycle, the Bank of Canada has slashed rates 4.25% in 17 months. The BoC says they will go no lower. After moving sideways, rates will start rising.  Most analysts expect prime rate to jump at least 1/2 of the amount it fell (i.e.,  at least 2+%).  The main question is when…and no one knows.

Going back to 1991, Canada has seen the following increases to prime:

  • 0.75% (In 1 month – Feb 92 to Mar 92)
  • 3.50% (In 2 months – Sep 92 to Nov 92)
  • 2.50% (In 4 months – Feb 94 to Jun 94)
  • 2.75% (In 4 months – Nov 94 to Mar 95)
  • 2.50% (In 12 months – Sep 97 to Sep 98)
  • 1.25% (In 7 months – Oct 99 to May 00)
  • 1.25% (In 13 months – Mar 02 to Apr 03)
  • 2.50% (In 39 months – Apr 04 to Jul 07)

The above list includes rate increases over both the short and long term.  A few of the short-term hikes took place inside of longer-term rate-increase cycles, so their effect would have been cumulative (i.e.  they would have added to previous rate increases).

It is worth noting that prime rate has usually fallen within 2-3 years after rising. On the other hand, Canada’s key lending rate has never before been cut to 0.25% in emergency fashion, as we’ve recently witnessed.  Perhaps rates will therefore remain elevated for longer, once they start going back up.

Whatever the case, if you eyeball the data it’s clear that a 2% prime-rate increase is very realistic in a 1-2-year timeframe.  This graph of prime rate since 1991 illustrates that.

Prime-RateThis isn’t intended to suggest where rates are going, of course. Past data is too limited and random to draw conclusions.  The point is simply that prime rate can move a lot in 1-2 years. Variable-rate mortgages are therefore unsuitable for folks with little financial breathing room.

A 2% increase in prime would raise payments 31% on a 35-year 2.75% variable mortgage.  On a $400,000 loan amount, that’s $463 more a month. 

If you’re a homeowner on a tight budget, and a 31% payment increase concerns you, don’t be seduced by today’s 2.75% adjustable rates. Look at a fixed-rate mortgage instead, or keep renting and build a financial buffer.


Sidebar: With mortgages, there are exceptions to every rule because suitability is dependent on individual circumstances. Always consult a licensed mortgage professional to see what terms make the most sense for your personal situation.

(Prime rate data courtesy of the Bank of Canada)