Consumers might have loophole in new federal mortgage rules

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

How rate is calculated will be key to qualifying

Garry Marr

There is a small loophole in the new federal mortgage rules that could make it easier for the banks to loan out money to first-time buyers.

The federal government announced last month new requirements for anyone borrowing money for a house and needing mortgage insurance. If you have less than a 20% down payment and are borrowing from a financial institution covered by the Bank Act, you have to take out mortgage default insurance, which ensures the banks are covered for any losses resulting from payment defaults.

For principal residences, the new rules force consumers to qualify for a loan based on being able to make payments on a five-year fixed-rate mortgage, which has a much higher interest rate than variable mortgages, now as low 1.85%.

Clearly, Ottawa’s view was toward rising rates. And this week, two of the major banks raised their posted rate on five-year fixed mortgages to 5.85%.

But one lingering question is how the five-year rate would be calculated in terms of qualifying a customer. In other words, it would obviously be a lot tougher to qualify for a mortgage under the new rules when using the posted rate of 5.85%. But if using the actual rate consumers get — these days as low as 3.75% — that’s a lot less income you’ll need to buy your first home.

Officials in Ottawa have been mum on what numbers should be used.

But an internal document distributed by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. to mortgage brokers, which was obtained by the Financial Post, shows consumers will be able to use their actual rate to qualify for a mortgage if they go for a term five years or longer.

If buyers want a variablerate mortgage, they will have to qualify based on “the benchmark rate,” which is essentially the posted rate.

So, if you want to go short, you had better be able to make payments based on an interest rate as high as 5.85%, which is where the benchmark rate will likely sit by next week.

“Probably 10% of the overall mortgage population is going to be affected by this rule in the sense they are no longer going to be able to qualify for a variablerate mortgage or a one-to four-year term,” says Robert McLister, editor of Canadian Mortgage Trends. “The qualifying rate is going to affect the debt ratios of those people.”

The end result may see more people forced to lock in their rate, which is hardly fair given variable-rate mortgages have been a better deal than fixed-rate rate mortgages about 88% of the time over the last 50 years, before the recent credit crisis.

“This will help people become accustomed to making payments based on where mortgage payments are likely to be going,” said Peter Vukanovich, chief executive of Genworth Financial Canada, the mortgage insurer.

He doesn’t think the changes are a major deal, given that most of the major banks have been qualifying consumers based on their four-and five-year rates. His company was already only insuring products based on rates as high as 4%.

“It’s a good rule change when you are situation right now where we are increasing interest rates,” says Jim Smith, vicepresident of Scotia Mortgage Authority. “Most lenders, ourselves included, have qualified based on at least the three-year posted rate.”

The discrepancy is, the three-year posted rate at most banks is actually higher than the five-year discounted rate.

And that means it is actually going to get easier to get a mortgage — as long as you do what the government tells you to do and lock in your rate.

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