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decoding the mortgage market

If you visit different mortgage broker websites, you're bound to come across wording like this: "We work with over 50 lenders to serve you better."

The idea is that having more lenders to choose from when shopping for a mortgage improves your odds of getting the best deal. But is more really better and is it enough to rely on a broker to contact lenders on your behalf – or should you call around yourself?

Access to multiple lenders is a key benefit that brokers like to promote. However, the pool of banks that brokers have access to has shrunk since 2007, when Bank of Montreal, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, ING and others began exiting the independent broker market. Those banks feel they can profit more by selling mortgages directly to customers.

Furthermore, most brokers don't compare every available lender. Maritz Research found that 90 per cent of the typical broker's volume goes to just three lenders. That's partly because some brokers feel more comfortable in knowing a few lenders well, versus many lenders superficially. It's also because brokers often get preferential rates and service – like better turnaround time – from their primary lenders.

Yet another reason, in certain cases, is self-interest. Lenders pay financial incentives to brokers who send them a certain amount of volume. Such incentives can be a conflict of interest if they lead a broker into recommending a less competitive mortgage.

When a broker deals with just three lenders, he or she might as well be a sales rep for those companies. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that – if the lender has the best mortgage for the customer, but that's not always the case.

One way to avoid brokers who don't shop around sufficiently is to deal with an established and experienced high-volume broker, someone who isn`t as pressured to send a set amount of volume to a particular lender. These brokers are typically found high up in Google's local search results, due to their longevity, referrals and professionally-run businesses.

In a perfect world, it would be easy to find a broker who shops all lenders objectively, even lenders that don't pay brokers. Unfortunately, most brokers don't have the time or technology to closely track the rates, terms and guidelines of 50-plus lenders. And brokers, like bankers, like to get paid and seldom recommend outside lenders.

So if you truly want to shop all major lenders, you'll need to do your own legwork. If you're getting a new mortgage, you must:

  • Contact these non-broker lenders yourself: RBC, BMO, CIBC, HSBC, ING, Manulife Bank, PC Financial
  • Go direct or use a broker to get quotes from these lenders: Scotiabank, TD Canada Trust, National Bank, Industrial Alliance, Desjardins and the major credit unions
  • Use a broker to get quotes from wholesale lenders like First National, MCAP, Street Capital, Home Trust, Merix Financial, ICICI Bank, CMLS, MonCana Bank, Radius Financial, RMG Mortgages, AGF Trust, B2B Bank, Xceed and others.

In short, you'll never truly know all the deals out there unless you take matters in your own hands and contact dozens of lenders. However, you need to be sure it's worth your time. You might save another 0.05 or 0.10 percentage points off a great bank or broker rate by shopping yourself (that's about $49 savings per $100,000 of mortgage per year).

But the legwork could literally take hours of asking the right questions and negotiating with all the key lenders. And if you inadvertently pick a lender with onerous fine print, the cost of that lender's restrictions could easily outweigh any upfront rate savings.

Using rate comparison sites for leverage is another strategy. The problem there is that rate sites typically don't reveal all the limitations of a mortgage (e.g., penalty calculations, porting rules and mortgage increase policies, to name a few). So you still need advice or lender feedback to find the ideal mortgage at the absolute lowest possible rate.

Even if you plan to get your mortgage directly through a bank – like 57 per cent of Canadians do – contacting a broker might work in your favour. At worst, you'll get market and rate intelligence that you can use to your advantage at the bank. At best, the broker may find you a flexible product that costs less, and/or suggest a strategy that saves you interest.

And, brokers have dozens more options than any single lender, which gives them access to cut-rate pricing, easier approvals for people with special situations (eg. self-employed or with bad credit history), lower penalties for breaking a mortgage early, and more choice of features, like pre-payment privileges, linked credit lines and the ability to extend your term before the mortgage comes due, penalty-free. (Banks too have unique features not available through brokers. Examples: BMO's Cash Account, TD's HELOC and Manulife's One account.)

Comparing dozens of lenders on your own can be educational, but it takes considerable effort and some know-how. If you know what questions to ask, that extra effort can lead to a slightly lower upfront rate. I'll list the essential questions in a future column.

Just remember this. The cheapest rate doesn't necessarily equal the least money out of pocket. Things like costly payout restrictions, lender refinance policies and accelerated payoff privileges can add or subtract thousands from your total borrowing costs.

In practice, most Canadians lead busy lives and are content to let a banker or broker find them a mortgage that's "good enough."

But if you have the spare time and truly want the best deal, you can engage a broker to shop for you, and call the non-broker lenders yourself and cross reference your quotes with a rate comparison site. And while you're at it, don't be afraid to get a second broker opinion.

Robert McLister is the editor of and a mortgage planner at VERICO intelliMortgage, a mortgage brokerage. You can also follow him on twitter at @CdnMortgageNews.

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