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How new mortgage rules hammer indebted households

The Toronto housing market's rotten January has thrown a scare into veteran mortgage broker John Cocomile.

A lot of Mr. Cocomile's business in recent years has been mortgage refinancings, which are like a financial-stress reducer. When your household debt gets too high, refinancing takes the pressure off by folding all your borrowings in with your mortgage. What worries Mr. Cocomile is that the latest developments in housing make it much harder to refinance.

We've seen household-debt levels push ever higher in recent years, with no evident repercussions in terms of more people being unable to repay what they owe. Now that refinancings are no longer an easy fallback, Mr. Cocomile thinks we've hit an inflection point where more people will find their debt unmanageable. This could be the year debt gets messy.

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A big reason why Toronto home sales fell 22 per cent compared with January, 2017, was the introduction of new mortgage regulations designed to make the housing market more stable going forward.

The rules include a stress test that applies to anyone with a mortgage that isn't insured against default. Typically, this means people with a down payment of 20 per cent or more and people who are refinancing.

The stress test is designed to see if borrowers can afford interest rates that are higher than the abnormally low levels of today. At Mr. Cocomile's office, a lot of people are flunking the test. He's had 10 people contact him about refinancing this year who did not end up qualifying. "All 10 would have qualified a year ago," he says.

Meanwhile, debt loads are getting heavier to carry. The Bank of Canada has increased its trend-setting overnight rate three times since last summer, and the cumulative rate increase on some kinds of debt is a hefty 0.75 of a percentage point.

In the past few years, Mr. Cocomile would do roughly 60 refinancings a year for people with an average $70,000 in non-mortgage debt that he summarized as "a smattering of credit-card debt, plus lines of credit." The usual procedure was to put them in a new mortgage that included credit-card and line-of-credit debt. The logic here is that the mortgage has a much lower interest rate than other forms of debt, and payments are manageable because they're stretched over the life of the mortgage.

Even so, Mr. Cocomile finds that clients usually have to go with a 30-year amortization in their refinanced mortgage. Paying off your mortgage over 30 years isn't possible when you have an insured mortgage, but you can still do it with a down payment of 20 per cent or more.

Refinancings in which people increased the amount they owe accounted for 21 per cent of the one million or so new mortgages issued in 2016, the most recent numbers from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. show. That's an increase of 3.8 per cent over the previous year.

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You're usually allowed to refinance no more than 80 per cent of the value of your home, a modest limitation in hot real-estate markets where rising prices have steadily handed people more home equity to work with. "People could refinance because the value was there," Mr. Cocomile said. "They call me and say, 'My neighbour's house just sold for $1.7-million, can I pull some equity out? I want to do a refi.'"

Toronto real estate's rotten January suggest people may be a bit disappointed in what their homes are worth now. The price of detached homes in the city fell 9 per cent on a year-over-year basis, even as condo prices rose 14.6 per cent. Mr. Cocomile finds that home appraisers are reacting to the current environment by getting more conservative with their assessments of how much homes are worth.

Refinancing your mortgage by folding in other debts makes sense in theory because you're converting higher-rate debt into a mortgage, which typically has a very low rate. But a refinance does nothing to address the behaviour that leads people to over-borrow. In fact, some people have exploited rising house prices by doing multiple refinancings over time to ease their debt loads.

It's arguably a good thing that refinancings are harder to get in 2018. With rates rising, it's time for households to attack their debt, not accommodate it.

Preet Banerjee examines the pros and cons of switching to a fixed-rate mortgage.
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