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Rule changes make mortgages a moving target Add to ...

Ottawa's ongoing tweaks to the rules for buying a home during the last two years have made it harder for many Canadians to get a mortgage.

Ottawa has repeatedly tightened the rules that determine who is eligible for an insured mortgage, fearing that low interest rates, coupled with a long period of climbing property values, have caused buyers to take on more debt than they should. Policy makers worry that some of those debtors won't be able to afford their mortgage payments if interest rates rise substantially.

As a result, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has revised the rules for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. mortgage loan insurance, which buyers are required to buy whenever a buyer has less than a 20 per cent down payment. Mr. Flaherty announced the most recent changes in January, and they came into force during the last two months.

The maximum length of a mortgage for a borrower putting less than 20 per cent down has dropped to 30 years from 35; the maximum amount that homeowners can borrow when they refinance has dropped to 85 per cent of the value of the house from 90 per cent.

Some critics in the mortgage industry say the new rules go too far. "New government mortgage insurance rule changes, combined with high inflation and increased housing prices due to lack of inventory, are slowing the Canadian mortgage and housing markets significantly," said Alex Haditaghi, the chief executive officer of Pacific Mortgage Group and Mynext.com. "I expect a very soft real estate and mortgage market for the next couple of years."

Many economists believe low interest and mortgage rates, as well as the rule changes, caused a significant number of Canadians to buy houses earlier than they would have otherwise.

Previously, Ottawa reduced the maximum amortization on insured mortgages to 35 years, in the fall of 2008, and also bolstered the minimum down payment to 5 per cent. Then in the spring of 2010, it toughened the tests banks have to subject borrowers to, and lowered the maximum amount that can be withdrawn in a refinancing to 90 per cent.

The repeated changes have injected a degree of uncertainty into the market, making it harder for prospective buyers to know what size of a down payment they should save for, as further changes are a distinct possibility.

"This hasn't happened before - we haven't seen this frequency of changes," said Jim Murphy, CEO of the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals.

The changes are significant. For instance, reducing the length of a $300,000, 5-per-cent mortgage to 30 years from 35 increases the monthly payment by $105, to $1,427 a month (although it also saves the borrower $41,850 in interest over the length of the mortgage).

"A lot of people, in particular first-time home buyers, were looking to get their mortgage confirmed and pre-approved along with their house bought prior to March 18 so they could take advantage of the old regulations," said Claude Demone, who works in the home equity group at Royal Bank of Canada. "That caused a lot of demand to be pulled forward."

First-time buyers will be most affected by the changes, he said, "those who were perhaps just saving enough under the old rules, perhaps they were going with five per cent down, and needed the full 35 years in order to qualify."

Unlike Mr. Haditaghi, Mr. Demone thinks it was necessary to change the rules again, as Ottawa has. "I think what it has done is really put a balance into the market so that people are ensuring that the goal and dream of owning a home is balanced with the ability to repay that mortgage over time," Mr. Demone said.

Peter Majthenyi, a mortgage planner with Mortgage Architects, said the changes have had a big effect on people who wanted to take equity out of their house. "They're the ones dipping into their equity trying to reposition their debt - they're the ones probably struggling with their monthly payments," he said.

Refinancing a $300,000 house at 90 per cent would allow the homeowner to access up to $270,000, whereas at 85 per cent it would be up to $255,000.

"It will change the game for some people," Mr. Murphy said.

He believes the government should have kept the 35-year amortization but required banks to ensure people could theoretically afford a lower amortization. There are many people who could afford a lower amortization but choose to take out a longer one because they want to invest in other things, or they want more flexibility, he said.

Mr. Majthenyi estimates the various rule changes that have taken place since the fall of 2008 have probably directly influenced the decisions of 10 per cent to 15 per cent of home buyers. "Is it harder to get a mortgage? Yes. But is it dramatically harder to get a mortgage? No."

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