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You now have roughly six to nine months to get a personal plan together for dealing with higher interest rates.

After that, the ride begins. Where it ends depends on how smartly the economy and inflation snap back, but we could be looking at a prime rate of more than double the current 2.25 per cent by the end of 2011. Let's look at four ways you can prepare:

1. Home buyers, lock down your mortgages

If you absolutely must buy a house in the overheated market in some big cities, then consider insulating yourself against rising rates by taking a five-year fixed-rate mortgage. A quick scan of mortgage brokerage websites shows five-year terms priced in the range of 3.69 to 3.99 per cent, while the big banks are advertising specials as low as 4.19 per cent.

Forget the research that shows you'll save on interest over the long term if you go with a variable-rate mortgage. If you're stretching for family cash flow to buy a house, then cost certainty is more important than potential savings.

Investor Education:

  • Should I buy a home now, or wait and save more money?
  • Understanding house prices
  • Is it better to buy a home, or choose some other investment? Charlie's story
  • What makes buying a home different from other investments?
  • What are some renovations that add value to my home?


Anyway, today's five-year rates are quite good by historical standards. Bank of Canada data show the average five-year rate over the past decade was 6.8 per cent, which compares with a typical posted rate today of 5.5 per cent at many banks (this rate is bogus - always ask about the kind of discounted rates mentioned just above).

Note that seven- and 10-year mortgages are available today for rates as low as 5.2 to 5.3 per cent. I'll have to investigate further, but this sounds reasonable from a historical point of view.

2. Homeowners, face the music

If your mortgage comes up for renewal in the next few years, brace yourself for higher rates and, thus, potentially higher mortgage payments. Suggestion: ask your lender for your projected mortgage balance at maturity and then use an online mortgage calculator to figure out how much your payments would be at various interest rate levels. Try: canequity.com/mortgage-calculator.

One suggestion for accommodating higher mortgage payments is to reduce your overall monthly debt carrying costs by paying down your line of credit.

Emergency measure: lengthen the amortization period on your mortgage on renewal. This is costly in terms of extra interest, but it will take the pressure off in terms of your payments.

Longer amortization periods are only a remedy for people who went with the standard 25-year payback period when they arranged their mortgages. People who started with a 30- or 35-year amortization have already played that card.

3. Enough with the bond funds already

As of the end of November, bond funds had the highest year-to-date 2009 sales for all broad fund categories at $11.3-billion. Bond funds were an ideal refuge during the worst of the bear market, but now they're vulnerable to rising rates.

Already, a rising rate outlook is hurting bonds. In December, the biggest bond mutual and exchange-traded funds in the country were down anywhere from 1 per cent to 1.6 per cent. If interest rates move up modestly and gradually, then gains in bond funds will be hard to come by. If rates spike higher, bond funds will be money losers.

Investors buying bond funds for safety might consider guaranteed investment certificates as an alternative, particularly those from smaller banks and credit unions (all should be members of deposit insurance plans). Returns at the high end are typically in the range of 1 to 2 per cent at best for a one-year term, but rising rates will help on this front.

Balanced funds are hot these days, too. Remember that the whole point of these funds is to mix bonds and stocks together. You could argue that this approach just adds to your risk right now.

4. Savers, get ready

The benefit of rising interest rates is better returns for savers and conservative investors who rely heavily on GICs and high-interest savings accounts. High-interest accounts today pay no better than 1 to 2 per cent and, frequently, even less. These accounts will automatically start paying more once rates start rising. Among the beneficiaries will be all the people who have used high-interest products for their tax-free savings accounts.

With GICs, you'll want to have money maturing later this year and 2011 to capitalize on higher rates. As ever, the best strategy for the most people is to invest equal amounts in GICs with maturities of one through five years. This laddering approach means you have money available for reinvestment every year, which means you're good for the next few years of rising rates.

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Higher, but by how much?

Here are some recent forecasts of how high interest rates will rise this year and in 2011. The rate used here is the Bank of Canada's overnight rate. Banks are currently setting their prime lending rate two percentage points above the overnight rate, which is currently 0.25 per cent.

2010 (%)

2011 (%)

Forecaster

Q1

Q2

Q3

Q4

Q1

Q2

Q3

Q4

BMO Nesbitt Burns

0.25

0.25

0.58

1.08

1.58

2.08

CIBC World Markets

0.25

0.25

0.25

0.25

1

1.75

Royal Bank

0.25

0.25

0.75

1.25

2.75

3.5

Scotia Economics

0.25

0.25

0.75

1.25

1.75

2.25

2.25

2.25

TD Bank

0.25

0.25

0.25

0.75

1.5

2

2.75

3.25

Source: The banks listed