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Canadians borrowing against their houses at the fastest pace in years, data shows

Posted: March 16, 2018

Home equity lines of credit, known as HELOCs, are emerging as a preferred means of accessing funds.

“Houses are becoming piggy banks,” according to Paul Gulberg, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst.  (RENE JOHNSTON / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)

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Canadians are borrowing against their houses at the fastest pace in more than five years, as home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) emerge as a preferred means of accessing funds.

Balances of nonmortgage loans to individuals for nonbusiness purposes, secured by residential properties, a category that includes HELOCs, jumped 7.2 per cent in December from a year earlier, the fastest annual growth since 2012, reaching a record $230 billion, according to data published Thursday on the website of the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions.

Borrowers can tap HELOCs for up to 65 per cent of the value of their homes, and the funds are most commonly used for making renovations, investing and consolidating debt, according to a June 2017 report by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada.

“Houses are becoming piggy banks,” said Paul Gulberg, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. It’s “either greed-based or need-based.”

HELOCs can also be a red flag for policy-makers.

It’s a type of borrowing that may contribute to increased household vulnerabilities because it typically doesn’t require the principal to be repaid on a fixed schedule, the Bank of Canada said in its most recent financial system review. About 40 per cent of HELOC borrowers don’t regularly pay down the principal.

Of total nonmortgage loans secured to individuals for nonbusiness purposes, those secured by residential property represent about 46 per cent, the data show.

Compared to other loan types, such as auto loans and credit cards, rates on HELOCs are typically cheaper, making them more attractive to consumers. They also tend to be more sensitive to fluctuations in borrowing costs, because they’re usually tied to prime rates.

“It’s a rising risk factor because it’s something that reprices more rapidly than a typical mortgage pool,” said Gulberg, adding the risk is rising “in conjunction with the fact that it’s fuelling overall consumer credit, which is considered to be an issue.”

Canadians have about 3 million HELOC accounts and the average outstanding balance is $70,000, the FCAC said, which also warned HELOC borrowers are increasingly vulnerable to rising interest rates and a housing market correction.

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 Courtesy of the Toronto Star