I used to think I had a pretty good understanding of mortgages — you contribute a downpayment (a minimum of five percent of the property value if you’re in Canada) and someone (usually a bank) lends you the rest. If you fail to pay your mortgage back, your lender can take your house away. Ouch.

When I started looking into buying a cottage, I realized my mortgage knowledge fell seriously short (by the way, the cottage is the inspiration behind our brand new newsletter called The Ladder, about the climb on and up the property ladder). Early on, I jumped on an online calculator and immediately had a lot of questions. How can these interest rates vary so wildly? What is a fixed versus variable mortgage? What does amortization mean? If I put down less than 20 percent will terrible things happen to me and everyone I love? They don’t teach this stuff in school and I learned there is no one-size-fits-all mortgage plan that will work for everyone.

Photo: Romain Toornier 

Enter Matt Yakabuski, an Ontario-based mortgage broker — here to break it all down and help you, me, all of us — understand the variables to help pick the best mortgage plan. If you’re Oprah, or just won the lottery — feel free to stop reading. Everyone else, buckle in!

And if you’re curious, I’ll be sharing more about my cottage mortgage in the next newsletter, landing in your inbox on Wednesday, April 3rd — sign up here!

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Um, where do I get a mortgage?

Mortgages usually come from either a bank or a broker.

Think of your mortgage broker as your personal mortgage shopper — they are provincially licensed professionals who have access to multiple lenders, including all of the major banks. They will listen to your needs and goals, analyze the numbers, help you through the qualifying process and find a mortgage product that fits just so.

“Online, you’ll get an idea of what the rates are generally, but they vary based on the downpayment amount, the location, your credit, your income and more. No two deals are alike, no two clients are alike, no two properties are alike,” says Yakabuski.

Banks are trusted, federally regulated lenders that can only access and offer you their own rates and products. You can also get a mortgage from a credit union (an increasingly popular option ever since the mortgage stress test was introduced) or a non-traditional Mortgage Investment Corporation. MICs are typically used by Canadians who have not qualified with traditional lenders and are willing to gobble higher interest rates to get into the property game.

Photo: CreditRepairExpert

How do I qualify for a mortgage?

To qualify for a mortgage, you have to prove to your lender that you can afford it and have a steady stream of income to keep up with payments. They will take a look at your income before taxes, living expenses, your credit score and all of the debts you carry. They will also look at your downpayment amount and the terms of your mortgage.

“Your debt servicing ratio is the main measure we use to qualify people for their mortgage,” says Yakabuski. “Depending on your credit score, you’re allowed to put a maximum of 44 percent of your total income towards debt servicing. This covers your mortgage, your property tax, credit card bills, car loans and any lines of credit.” If your debt eats up more than 44 percent of your income, you won’t be approved by traditional lenders.

Will I pass the mortgage stress test?

As of January 1st, 2018, you also have to pass the mortgage stress test — a calculation used by federally regulated lenders to determine if homebuyers can keep up with their mortgage payments if interest rates were to rise. If you can demonstrate that you can withstand your mortgage at the Bank of Canada’s benchmark qualifying rate (at 5.34 percent at the time of writing) or your interest rate plus two points — whichever amount is greater — you pass.

The mortgage stress test has reduced purchasing power by just under 20 percent. But as Yakabuski puts it, “If interest rates do go up, you know you can afford it.”

Photo: adventures_of_pippa_and_clark/Instagram

Should I take the biggest loan I can get?

Your lender will tell you the maximum loan you can qualify for (and they can help you find ways to increase that amount). But the maximum isn’t necessarily the loan you should take.

“Instead of my clients asking me what they can afford, I ask them what they’re comfortable spending on a monthly basis on their mortgage, property tax, heat, hydro, that kind of thing. And then we’ll work backwards,” explains Yakabuski.

Everyone has different comfort levels. “Some people are conservative and some people just want to hit their maximum,” he says. In the end, it all comes down to budgeting and making sure you don’t completely wipe out your bank account and end up house poor. If you have to beg your in-laws to cover the closing costs, can’t afford to hire movers or even get the nice coffee beans you like — you may want to consider getting less house than you can actually qualify for, but more financial freedom.

Photo: mandimakes/Instagram

Finding the “best rate” is not as easy as it looks

You may have seen a low rate on a website or on the window at the bank, but not every rate is for you and you have to read the fine print. There are rates for refinancing, rates for rental properties, rates if you’re putting more than 20 percent down (uninsured) and rates if you’re putting less (insured), and on and on.

“Your friend who got a 2.49 percent interest rate six months ago, sorry to say — that’s just not available today — and even if it was, it doesn’t mean you could have gotten it. If you find a rate that seems like a much better deal than everywhere else, there’s probably a reason for that,” explains Yakabuski.

For example, restricted mortgages, which often have lower rates but inflict painful penalties if you break them and prohibit you from refinancing elsewhere before your term is up. “If I sell you a restricted mortgage and then in two years, you have to sell the property, I don’t want to say, ‘Sorry, your penalty is going to be triple the amount of a regular penalty because it was a restricted deal.’ Anyone who is looking out for your best interest is going to take into consideration the portability of the mortgage.”

Photo: James Bombales

How long should my term and amortization be?

The term you choose will have a direct impact on your mortgage rate and how long you’re locked in to the rate, lender, and various terms and conditions of your mortgage product.

“A shorter term length has historically proven to have a lower interest rate. Right now, not so much,” explains Yakabuski. Terms can range from six months to 10 years. “Most people choose a five-year because it’s often the longest term for the best rate.”

Your mortgage amortization period is the length of time it will take you to pay off your entire loan. In Canada, the maximum amortization period is 35 years — but you’ll only have access to this timeframe if you’re putting down more than 20 percent. If you’re putting down less than 20 percent and have an insured mortgage, the maximum amortization period is 25 years.

If you go with a longer amortization period, you will have smaller monthly payments, but keep in mind: you’ll pay more in the long run in interest over the life of your mortgage.

Depending on your mortgage commitment, lenders will only allow you to pay so much extra towards a mortgage before they start penalizing you. How’s it’s calculated depends on the product you’re in and what lender you’re with, but in many cases you will have the opportunity to make lump-sum payments towards your mortgage, to double up payments or to increase the payment amount.

“I suggest taking the highest amortization possible, but if you have the affordability to pay more, make sure you do,” says Yakabuski. “Even with a longer amortization, you effectively could pay at the rate of a 15- or 20-year amortization, saving you thousands of dollars in interest by paying the principal off that much quicker. But should your financial situation change, you could scale back your payments all the way to the 25-year if you have to.”

Photo: James Bombales

Should I get a fixed or variable mortgage?

Fixed mortgages mean the rate you settle on will be your rate for the entire term of your mortgage. A variable rate is going to fluctuate based on what the prime rate is doing (at the time of writing, it’s currently sitting at 3.95 percent). If the prime rate goes down, your rate and payment will go down and vice versa. With a variable rate, there is often an opportunity to save money, but you have to be comfortable with some risk.

Choosing the right strategy often comes down to flexibility. Many Canadians default to a five-year fixed rate mortgage, but if there’s a possibility you may be moving on before then, the penalty for breaking the term can get costly, whereas a variable mortgage will cost you three months of interest.

“Variable is a good option because they traditionally have a lower interest rate and you have flexibility should you need to get rid of it quicker with the smallest penalty possible,” says Yakabuski.

Should I go for an open or closed mortgage?

Let’s say you come into a large inheritance and want to pay off your mortgage in full or you unexpectedly have to ditch your property before the term is up.

With a closed mortgage, you cannot repay, renew or renegotiate before the term is up without incurring penalties. With an open mortgage, you can do all of the above without penalty — but the interest rates are often much higher.

“I rarely recommend an open mortgage, even when people say they’re going to flip the property,” says Yakabuski. “The reason is because an open mortgage right now has an interest rate of about six percent (all open terms are variable). Whereas the interest on a closed, variable mortgage is, let’s say, three percent less. If you’re going to sell the place inside two, maybe three months, then open makes sense. But if you’re going to keep it for four months plus, generally the three-month interest penalty on breaking a closed, variable mortgage can save you thousands in just six months.”

Photo: alyssacloud_/Instagram

Now for the fun part — finding a home

Before you even start looking at properties, it’s important to get your finances in order so you can crunch the numbers when you do find places you like. You’ve saved for a downpayment, qualified for a loan and have chosen a mortgage plan that is right for you. You’re officially a mortgage badass and it’s time to start house hunting. You’ve got this.

Want to buy your first home?

Sign up for Ladies on the Ladder, the first newsletter community to broadcast the diverse voices of women who have climbed the property ladder.

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