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Ottawa tightens mortgage rules to avoid 'bubble'


Blog by Morgan DuVernet & Kelsie Struch | August 27th, 2008


OTTAWA — The federal government is cracking down on the mortgage industry in a move that could help protect against a U.S.-style housing bubble, but will also make it tougher to borrow money to buy a home.

The Finance Department said Wednesday it will stop backing mortgages with amortization periods longer than 35 years as of Oct. 15.

It will also start demanding a down payment equal to at least 5 per cent of the home's value, rather than guaranteeing mortgages where they buyer has borrowed the total amount.

“Today's announcement marks a responsible and measured approach by the government to ensure Canada's housing market remains strong, and to reduce the risk of a U.S.-style housing bubble developing in Canada,” the Finance Department said in a statement.

Existing 40-year mortgages will be grandfathered, a Finance Department spokesman said.

In 2006, the maximum amortization period was extended to 40 years from 25, and longer-term mortgage products have become increasingly popular with buyers looking for lower monthly payments as the price of Canadian homes soared.

Last year, 37 per cent of new mortgages were for terms of longer than 25 years, according to the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals (CAAMP).

But while longer amortizations stretch out monthly payments, they also greatly increase the cost of a mortgage over its lifetime.

For example, the total interest on a $300,000 mortgage can soar from $286,161 over the life of a 25-year mortgage to $498,416 over a 40-year amortization period – adding more than $200,000 to the cost of the home.

This, combined with the fact that these mortgages are often combined with little or no equity, raised alarm bells with policy makers looking at the turmoil that took place in the U.S. when house prices started to fall.

“We've seen an inclination now, a trend, toward longer-term amortizations and smaller down payments, and that is a matter of some concern,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said in a speech in May. Mr. Flaherty was not available for comment Wednesday.

Jim Murphy, president and chief executive of CAAMP, said in talks with him the government expressed concern about the risky lending products that collapsed the U.S. housing market.

The Finance Department was also worried about the future impact of competition between mortgage insurers, which led to the introduction of 40-year mortgage in 2006, Mr. Murphy said.

“I think you have a clear case of the government sitting down and looking at its risk exposure and wanting to review that. They have financial guarantees in place for the CMHC and private insurers, and they were saying, ‘What is our risk, and what is the risk to the Canadian taxpayer?' ” he said.

Reaction from the industry was mixed.

“CMHC supports the new parameters … . We also support their efforts to maintain the strong Canadian housing market,” said spokesperson Stephanie Rubec, adding CMHC will stop insuring 40-year and zero down payment mortgages in October.

“It's the right move,” said Nick Kyprianou, president of Home Capital Group Inc., whose principal subsidiary, Home Trust Co., provides alternative mortgages. “Why get people overextended? Nobody wins by getting people right to the end of the cliff.”

Others, however, say home buyers and banks have been prudent with their finances, and are being punished for the more lax approach south of the border.

“Things here are not like they are in the U.S. where they had those NINJA loans, no income, no job, no assets. … It's only going to hurt the consumer,” said John Panagakos, owner of Toronto brokerage Mortgage Centre.

The move actually comes at a time when the housing market has moved on to other concerns, the most pressing of which is chilling consumer sentiment due to high fuel prices, said Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc.

“It's a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has already run down the road.”