Monday, September 18, 2017

Residential mortgages in Canada

Almost everyone who buys a house in Canada takes out a mortgage.  Most people, however, don't understand how lenders calculate how much you can borrow, and a large number of people don't even shop around for the best mortgage rate.  I'll explain in simple terms how to calculate how much you can borrow, and how to get a good rate.

Lenders use formulas to calculate debt service ratios from your housing costs and your income.  The housing costs lenders look at are your mortgage payment, your property taxes, and sometimes heating.  Lenders require the housing costs to be less than about a third of your gross (before tax) income.  With a bit more math, you can calculate how much of a mortgage you can get based on your income.  In general, that will be about four and a half times your income, or close to five times your income with some lenders if you have very good credit.  In other words, a single person making $40,000 per year would be able to borrow between $180,000 and $200,000.

Ten years ago I used to recommend people looking for a good rate on their mortgage deal with a mortgage broker.  The brokers could check with the big five banks and other lenders to find the best rates.  Now CIBC and BMO do not work with brokers, and Scotia sometimes will not offer their best deals through a broker.  Therefore I recommend going to three of the big banks when shopping for a mortgage, and try to find someone that does a lot of mortgages, since they are usually the ones who know how to get the best rates.  Also disclose the fact that you are shopping for the best rate and will be applying at one or two other banks.  If you don't tell the lender that you expect a great rate, you probably won't get it.  Ask local real estate agents, lawyers, or financially astute friends who they recommend for getting the best rates on a mortgage.  Mortgage comparison sites can be helpful too, however most of them are really advertisement sites that only show paid listings.  One site I trust is Rate Spy, which doesn't restrict its mortgage listings.

For people who are putting less than 20% down and therefore need mortgage insurance, I still recommend using the services of a good broker (although finding a good broker can be a bit difficult).  In the last couple years non-bank lenders have started offering better rates on insured mortgages because of the lower risk to the lender when mortgage is insured against default.  Many of these non-bank lenders only work through brokers, hence the need to use the services of a broker.  Brokers and credit unions are also the best option for people with below average credit that may not be able to qualify for a mortgage at the big banks.

For people who want more specific advise, I recommend applying with BMO and Scotiabank and asking for their best rate on a 2 year fixed mortgage.  Over the past year, at least where I live in Nova Scotia, they have had the best mortgage deals.  Even when TD or Royal has had lower advertised special rates, BMO or Scotia have been able to beat them.  Don't apply to just one of them, since sometimes BMO will offer rates that Scotia can't beat, and sometimes Scotia will offer rates BMO can't beat.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Be your own agent

What I'm about to write about would be considered heresy by some real estate agents, but I'm not one to just go with the flow.  When buying a house, you can save 2-3% by forgoing what is known as a buyer's agent, and dealing with the listing agent directly.  You'll probably have a smoother purchase process too.

In the US and Canada, depending on the market you live in, commissions paid to a buyer's agent are often 2-3% of the sale price.  Unscrupulous people in real estate will claim the buyer does not pay those commissions, but ultimately they do.  When working directly with a buyer, most listing (seller's) agents will discount some or all of the buyer's agent commission, which reduces the price you pay for the house.

Decades ago it was necessary to have a buyer's agent because they had access to the real estate listings.  Now most buyers find the properties they are interested in on their own, and only use an agent for viewing the property and as an intermediary in the purchase negotiation.  The listing agent is actually the best person to show the property, since they know the property from preparing the listing.  Having one less cog in the wheel also makes the process run smoother, and can even make the between getting the property you want and missing out.  When you have a buyer's agent, your interest in making an offer may not get communicated to the listing agent for several hours, and if another offer was accepted or countered during that time, you could loose the opportunity to purchase the house.

Some jurisdictions still allow dual agency, where one agent acts for the seller and the buyer, and collects the full commission.  So when you contact the listing agent, tell them you want to work without anyone acting as your agent.  In Nova Scotia, the legal term is that you are working as a "customer" and would sign a "buyer customer status acknowledgement".  People in the industry may try to scare you by pointing out that you don't have someone legally required to put your interests first, but you are still legally protected.  Due to both professional standards for licensed agents and laws regarding fraudulent sales, the listing agent has to tell you all the details of the property, both good and bad.

Before asking to see a property, one of the first things you should ask the listing agent is the commission "to the street", so you know how much would be going to a buyer's agent if you had one.  Then ask if they cut their commission to the seller by that amount if you don't have an agent.  I questioned five agents in my area, and three were willing to work directly with a buyer while cutting the full 2.5% commission off the purchase price.  One agent was willing to work directly with a buyer but would not confirm if they would forgo the 2.5%.  The fifth said they were not comfortable working directly with a buyer, and so would require them to have their own agent.

So while being your own agent may not be an option all the time, when you can save 2-3%, I think it is worth trying.  Good luck on your next real estate purchase!