The past few years have seen historically low mortgage interest rates — the lowest in decades — leading some to call them “once-in-a-lifetime rates.”
Consider, for example, that in the late 1980s, five-year, fixed rate mortgages were more than 12%, and even in the late 1990s, they were almost 7%. In 2009, you could get the same mortgage for about 4.5%, a five-year variable rate mortgage at 2.25%, and a five-year fixed rate at 3.99%.
Perhaps these rates really are opportunities of a lifetime.
This, of course, raises an important question for home buyers: should they lock in at these rates, or is a variable rate the better option?
This is an excellent question, but it is not easily answered. It depends on your comfort level with rate fluctuations.
If the bank rates decrease, then it’s in your favour. If the bank rates increase, your cash flow will be restricted.
The importance of pre-approval
Taking the important step of getting pre-approved affords you knowledge and confidence: you’ll know in advance exactly how much financing you qualify for, and you’ll be confident during your search knowing where you stand.
This is also likely the time when you will first be introduced to the often intimidating and complex world of mortgages. It’s critical you understand your options so you can make an informed decision that suits your personal circumstances.
When you meet with your financial representative, if there’s anything you don’t understand, ask. Ask lots of questions. If you still don’t get it, ask again. This is not an area to take chances or to be shy, since how you structure your mortgage could amount to tens of thousands of dollars over the term of your loan.
If during this process you sense your lender representative isn’t patient in answering your questions, move on. The financial services industry is very competitive and, assuming you qualify for a mortgage, if one company doesn’t want your business, someone else will.
Fixed or variable
A fixed mortgage involves a fixed rate of interest over a specified period of time, known as the term. This provides a certain level of peace of mind, since you’ll know exactly what your monthly payments will be, which allows you to budget accordingly.
A variable mortgage, on the other hand, is just like it sounds: the interest rate fluctuates based on the market rates. This can be a good arrangement if rates are on the way down, but it also tests one’s nerves if rates begin to rise.
With rates being as low as they have been over the last couple of years, more and more home buyers are locking into fixed mortgages to take advantage of the low rates.
Long versus short term
The term of the mortgage refers to the life of the mortgage contract, typically anywhere from one to five years. At the end of the term, the mortgage becomes due and payable. In most cases, however, the lender and borrower negotiate a renewal for a new term, which also provides you the opportunity to change the terms of the mortgage if your circumstances change.
So, long versus short term is pretty self-explanatory. Generally speaking, if rates are low it might be a good idea to lock in for a long term. If rates are high, it may be advisable to choose a shorter term until you know how the rates are trending. If they begin to rise, you can consider locking in for a longer term.
Open versus closed
This refers to how much flexibility you have to repay the mortgage, in full or with large lump-sum payments, at any time over the term without penalties.
However, you do pay for the flexibility. For example, open mortgages are usually available only for short terms, and the interest rate is often higher. The benefit is you have the freedom to make a large payment when you can.
Closed mortgages, on the other hand, often have lower rates, but you don’t offer the flexibility to make large one-time payments.
This is the period over which your mortgage is paid in installments. In June 2012, the Canadian government outlined new rules limiting the maximum amortization period at 25 years. For many first-time buyers, the period is usually 25 years. Generally speaking, the shorter your amortization, the less interest you have to pay, but the larger your monthly payments will be. Most first-timers go for a long amortization to keep payments as low as possible, since it’s their first experience with a mortgage.
With all of the above mortgage considerations, what you choose really depends on your own personal circumstances, preferences, and comfort level. Your mortgage specialist can walk you through a number of different scenarios with these variables, so you can see exactly what each change will cost you.
There are many products and services available in the industry today, so be sure to take your time and explore all your options.