TORONTO - The Canadian housing market has seen a stronger and faster rebound from the recession than any other segment of the economy, due in large part to enticingly low mortgage rates.
But rates this low - 5.59 per cent for a five-year fixed-rate mortgage and 2.25 per cent for a five-year variable-rate mortgage at one bank - can't last forever, and experts are advising borrowers to prepare for higher rates within the next 12 months.
"We have to realize those are emergency interest rates," said CIBC economist Benjamin Tal.
"Interest rates will rise - it's just a question of time, it's not a question of if. And if that's the case, we have to make sure that when we borrow this money we can afford the same mortgage 200 or 300 basis points higher. That's the key responsibility now of borrowers and lenders, to make sure that what we do, we do it in a prudent way."
Depending on whether they are fixed or floating-rate, mortgages are tied to either the bond market or the Bank of Canada's key lending rate, which are closely related. The central bank's rate has been sitting at a record low of 0.25 per cent since the spring and it has said it will keep it steady until at least next June to help stimulate the ailing economy.
On Wednesday, three of Canada's biggest banks - Royal Bank (TSX:RY), Bank of Montreal (TSX:BMO) and TD Bank (TSX:TD) - announced that they will cut posted rates for fixed-rate mortgages by up to 0.25 percentage points. On Thursday, CIBC (TSX:CM) followed suit by cutting its five-year closed mortgage by 0.25 per cent to 5.59 per cent, while Laurentian Bank (TSX:LB) cut its five-year rate by 0.25 per cent to 5.6 per cent.
But mortgage lenders agree that rates are nearing the bottom and will begin to rise again in 2010.
"The only sort of assurance that you hear in the marketplace is the Bank of Canada's going to try to maintain that rate until June. But past that, there are already warnings that if there need to be adjustments, the adjustments could be a little more abrupt than we've been used to in the past," said Martin Beaudry, vice-president of retail lending at ING Direct.
CIBC's Tal said that with rates this low, "it's almost a crime not to take a mortgage out," but warned that consumers need to be prepared for higher interest rates later on and what this could mean for their personal finances.
For example, a $200,000 mortgage with a term of 25 years and an interest rate of 2.25 per cent has monthly payments of $876.26. For the same mortgage with an interest rate of five per cent, the monthly payments become $1,169.18.
And this doesn't only apply to variable-rate mortgages, but to fixed-rate mortgages that are coming up for renewal, Tal said.
"It's not just variable rates, because five years from now the rates will be much higher, so you don't want to find yourself in a situation five years from now where you can't afford the house," he said.
"It's important to be extremely prudent and not to be totally blinded by those rates."
Both John Turner, director of mortgages at BMO, and ING's Beaudry said they've seen an increase in the number of people opting for fixed-rate mortgages to ensure some certainty when interest rates begin to rise again.
"In the first six months (of 2009), we saw well over 60 per cent of our applications being for variable-rate mortgages, and in particular in our case five-year variable-rate mortgages," Beaudry said.
"Towards the latter part of the summer, until now, the trend has reversed to where we're seeing about 70 to 80 per cent of our applications going for five-year fixed-rate mortgages."
Turner agreed, saying 60 to 70 per cent of BMO's customers were opting for variable-rate mortgages in the past, but lately "there's been a slight shift to fixed."
The key is finding a monthly payment you feel comfortable with and then thinking ahead - if you have a variable-rate mortgage, or a fixed-rate mortgage that's coming up for renewal soon, will you be able to afford to continue to make your payments if interest rates go up?
Turner said now is the time to begin making more frequent payments, while interest rates are still low, if you can afford it. This will reduce your principal more quickly and will mean lower payments down the road when interest rates are higher.
"For example, if you have a $200,000 mortgage and you opt to pay biweekly (instead of monthly), you knock four years off your mortgage and save about $47,000 in interest just by doing that," he said.
As well, if you have a variable-rate mortgage, it's important to keep an eye on interest rates and lock in if you feel they're getting too high, said Jim Murphy, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals, or CAAMP.
The association also recommends that homeowners renew their mortgages before the scheduled renewal dates given the current low level of interest rates.
However, Murphy predicted that when interest rates do start to go up it will be a gradual climb, and Canadians shouldn't worry about a sudden jump in the number of people who are forced to default on their mortgages.
"I think people are predicting that rates will start to increase in 2010 at some point in time, but it'll be more of a slow, measured increase as it goes up, and most Canadians who have variable products will have the ability to lock in," Murphy said.
CAAMP says the volumes of residential mortgage credit outstanding is forecast to grow by seven per cent between 2009 and 2011, and is predicted to pass $1 trillion in 2010. The average mortgage interest rate was 4.55 per cent as of October, down from 5.41 per cent a year ago.