Interest rates have been so low for so long that we barely raise an eyebrow about the warnings of higher rates ahead. But long-term interest rates might tick upward this year as the U.S. Federal Reserve cuts back on its economic stimulus which has kept rates low.
For the past five years, the Fed has been buying U.S. Treasury bonds every month by creating the money. It writes a cheque to buy the bonds which has expanded consumer credit, making it cheaper to borrow money.
The impact of the Fed’s action on Canadian homeowners is a gradual increase in long-term mortgage rates. This includes the five-year fixed rate mortgage, now among the most popular. In 2013, 82 per cent of new mortgages were fixed rate terms, according to the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals.
“We expect long-term rates to rise later this year, which will impact five- and10-year mortgage rates in Canada,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC.
A homeowner who chose a five-year mortgage in 2012 would have paid 2.99 per cent. In 2013, the average was 3.29 per cent. That’s why it’s a good idea to take a look at how you might be affected by higher rates, especially if your mortgage will soon come up for renewal.
The idea is to prepare for the worst, says Robert McLister, editor of Canadian Mortgage Trends.
“At the very least, folks should run a couple of rate hike scenarios through a stress test calculator,” McLister said.
The goal is to ensure you can afford payments at that higher rate come maturity time.
“If the results look ominous given your budget, the time to strategize is now, well before maturity,” he said.
Here are some examples:
If you have a $300,000 mortgage at 3.49 per cent and rates rise by two points at renewal time it will cost you $274 more a month. At $400,000 it’s $365 more per month.
Here are some options if your payments are too high for you to carry at renewal:
Refinance: If you have to, extend the amortization. If you’ve worked it down to 20 years, say, increase it. This option generally requires at least 20 per cent equity in the home and it means you’ll be increasing your interest bill over the life of the mortgage. It’s a last-ditch thing to do, McLister says, but “it’s better than defaulting on your mortgage.”
Take a payment vacation: Some mortgages have a skip-a-payment feature. This is an alternative to extending your amortization.
Go shorter: Choose a shorter term with a lower interest rate and payment. That assumes you can handle the risk of rising rates when it comes time to renew again, but if you’re having cash flow problems, there’s a good chance you can’t.
Downsize: A last resort, maybe. But consider selling or renting out a portion of your home.
McLister says that if you find yourself in this position then maybe it’s time to sell and avoid the stress.
“If your budget is stretched, something will happen to stretch it further. It’s Murphy’s Law of borrowing,” he said.
While long-term interest rates may finally head up this year, the Bank of Canada remains committed to keeping short-term rates low. As the spread between long- and short-term interest rates widens, variable rate mortgages become more attractive.
“When long-term rates rise, more and more people look at variable rate mortgages,” said Tal.
The Canadian Mortgage Trends Web site has a useful calculator that can help you run the numbers.
Torstar News Service