Flaherty tightens mortgage taps

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced tighter mortgage rules on Monday to combat concerns over high Canadian household debt.

“In 2008 and again in 2010, our government acted to protect and strengthen the Canadian housing market,” Flaherty told a news conference in Ottawa. “We continue to do so today.”

Flaherty unveiled three main changes:

  • The maximum number of years the government will back a mortgage was lowered from 35 to 30.
  • The upper limit that Canadians can borrow against their home equity was lowered from 90 per cent to 85 per cent.
  • Government insurance backing on home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs, has been removed.

The first change is likely to have the largest impact. Buyers who purchase a home with less than 20 per cent of the value of the home are required to purchase government-backed mortgage insurance through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Under the new rules, mortgages amortized over longer than 30 years will no longer qualify for that insurance, making it effectively impossible to get a highly leveraged mortgage of more than 30 years in Canada.

After companies began insuring mortgages of 40 years or more, Ottawa set the limit at 35 years in 2008 before Monday’s move lowered it to 30.

“This measure will significantly reduce the total interest payments for Canadian homeowners,” Flaherty said.

Aims to stem tide on consumer debt

He was referring to the fact that anyone taking a longer amortization on their mortgage will be paying much more in interest on their home.

Flaherty pitched the lowering of the amount that can be borrowed against home equity to 85 per cent to ensure Canadians retain some equity in their homes.

“This will promote saving through home ownership and limit repackaging consumer debt into mortgages,” he said.

The final change, to remove government insurance on HELOCs, came as a result of Ottawa’s concern that certain financial institutions were allowing homeowners to roll too many consumer purchases into CMHC-insured mortgages.

“I think that’s particularly risky because some of those loans are not used to create housing. They’re used to buys boats, and cars and big-screen televisions,” Flaherty said. “That’s not the business that home insurance was designed for.”

While Flaherty called the changes “moderate,” they did not include an increase to the five per cent minimum down payment Ottawa requires for a home purchase. They also stopped short of a proposal that surfaced last week which would have required 100 per cent of condo fees to be included in the list of expenses that are measured against income when financial firms consider a mortgage candidate. Currently, only 50 per cent must be included.

The changes also come following recent warnings from the Bank of Canada on household debt levels.

In December, bank governor Mark Carney cautioned Canadian households and businesses not to be lulled by current low interest rates, because repercussions from a hike could be swift.

Rates ‘will rise’

“While rates are low by historical standards, they eventually will rise,” Flaherty said Monday. He dismissed the notion that the announcement was timed to precede the bank’s next decision on interest rates, which are set to be revealed Tuesday.

“The particular timing today is not related to the interest rate announcement,” Flaherty said. “The governor and I speak regularly, and we discuss these types of issues [and] we make an effort to make sure government policy complements the Bank of Canada’s monetary policy.”

Last week, Agathe Cote, a deputy governor at the bank, told a Kingston, Ont., audience that a sudden weakening in the Canadian housing sector could affect other areas of the economy given the high debt loads of some households.

If that shock hits, Canadians would be expected to cut back on their spending, she said.

Flaherty’s announcement is the second time in three years that the government has clamped down on mortgage rules. In 2008, the government brought in several alterations, including:

  • Cutting the maximum amortization period to 35 years from 40.
  • Requiring a minimum down payment of five per cent, whereas loans for 100 per cent of the price are possible now.
  • Establishing a requirement for a consistent minimum credit score.
  • Introducing new loan-documentation standards.

CBC news Jan 17,2011

Pam Martin, Invis, Mortgage Broker, Best Mortgage Rates, Kelowna,Vernon, Penticton, Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada