Crush your mortgage

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From MoneySense

Mortgage documents are full of traps that make it extremely difficult to pay off your biggest debt.

mortgages Crush your mortgageIt was a sun-drenched autumn afternoon in 2005 when Heidi Croot and her husband Phil Carey found themselves barreling down Highway 401 toward the picturesque lakeshore community of Port Hope, Ont. Armed with a picnic lunch, the couple was in a celebratory mood. Finally, they were following through on a promise made to each other more than a decade ago: to pay off their mortgage early, free themselves from their well-paying but stressful corporate jobs in downtown Toronto and downsize to the countryside. Croot and Carey, then 47 and 59, had been living north of the city in the commuter town of Thornhill. They were tired of suburban sprawl, not to mention their daily two-plus-hour slog to and from work. Small, quiet Port Hope, some 100 km away from the gridlock and congestion of Toronto, would soon be their new home.

Croot and Carey paid off their 25-year mortgage in 2002, 10 years earlier than expected. With the freed-up income, they were finally in a position to focus solely on building up their retirement savings—and that’s exactly what they did, continuing on with their regular jobs for three years prior to moving to Port Hope. These days, Phil is retired from his engineering career, while Heidi has transitioned to part-time work. Their only regret is that they didn’t figure out how to do this earlier.

As the couple will attest, paying off your mortgage is the single most important step towards financial independence and a prosperous retirement. Owning a principal residence outright gives you the financial freedom to funnel money that formerly went to your mortgage into your savings or to pursue lifelong dreams like travelling. Don’t forget, too, that mortgage interest adds tens of thousands of dollars to the real cost of a home, so a shorter mortgage slashes the amount you pay in total. Paying off your mortgage as quickly as possible should therefore be an important goal for any homeowner—whether you’re halfway through the process, just starting out, or even just contemplating buying a house.

If all the above advantages sound compelling, bear in mind that sacrifices will have to be made. “Paying off the mortgage early wasn’t easy,” Croot says. “We had friends who were going out twice a week for dinner and we didn’t do that.” Without question, tightening up your spending is a key tactic for freeing yourself from mortgage debt, but there are also many other strategies that won’t cost you a dime and can save you thousands. Allow us to let you in on the secrets every prospective and current home owner should know.

Polish off your credit score 

If you’ve always paid off your debt in a timely manner, your credit score should be fine. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t have any unexpected surprises, says Toronto fee-only adviser Jason Heath. He cites the example of a client who was buying a condo and was unaware she had $300 outstanding on a Holt Renfrew card. It took her more than three months to repair her credit rating. While that single infraction wouldn’t have been enough for a bank to deny her a mortgage, it could have resulted in a significant jump in her interest rate.

Moshe Milevsky, an author and finance professor at the Schulich School of Business, says people applying for mortgages should pull their credit scores six to 12 months in advance to make sure there’s nothing wrong. “Get your credit report from all the bureaus,” he advises. Also, try to avoid job volatility for at least six months before applying, as this will make your income appear more stable in the eyes of the banks.

Maximize your down payment 

While all home mortgages in Canada require a minimum 5% down payment, paying 20% upfront is one of the single biggest cost-cutting measures a borrower can make. Not only will you owe the bank less principal and interest, but critically you will avoid having to pay Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) insurance premiums that would add thousands of dollars to your mortgage. CMHC mortgage loan insurance doesn’t protect you—it protects your bank if you default. It’s mandatory in Canada for down payments from 5% to 19.99%. (This insurance can also be purchased through Genworth, a private company.) And the cost is substantial—for instance, if you only put a 5% down payment on a $350,000 home, the CMHC premium will be a hefty $9,144.

If you can’t afford an initial payment of 20%, putting down 10% to 15% will still reap major financial savings. “Those are the insurer breakpoints where insurance fees drop,” says Vancouver mortgage broker Rob McLister. “For example, putting down 10% instead of 9.9% saves you 0.75 percentage points off your entire mortgage amount. That’s $1,500 on a $200,000 mortgage.” For those looking to boost their down payments, the Home Buyers’ Plan is a popular option; it lets you withdraw up to $25,000 in a calendar year from an RRSP to put toward a home you are buying (or building).

One of the best strategies for avoiding mortgage default insurance premiums—and to get into the market sooner—is to buy a house that fits your budget. “Sometimes you can’t move into your dream house as quickly as you want,” says Jason Heath. “But with a smaller property you’re that much closer to having that 20% down payment, not to mention money left over.” That was the strategy Anne Langevin, a 43-year-old retail clerk, and her husband Rene, a 42-year-old finance manager, followed back in 1998 when they bought a $210,000 suburban starter home in Mississauga, Ont. “It was just the two of us and the house was reasonable. It wasn’t a huge mansion,” says Anne.

Get the best rate

Prospective home buyers often stick with their own financial institutions when applying for mortgages, but it pays to shop around. Credit unions and non-direct lenders, known as monolenders, will offer a discount—sometimes just a fraction of a percentage point—that will save you money on interest payments compared to larger lenders. For those worried about getting mortgages from more obscure companies, Heath says to remember you’re borrowing, not investing. “The fact it’s a more obscure institution makes it no riskier than a bank. You’ve already got the money.”

Heath recommends scanning the major rate comparison websites—such as Ratesupermarket.ca or Ratehub.ca—to get a general sense of where the market is. Also be sure to ask your lending institution if the interest on your mortgage will be compounded monthly or semi-annually. The less often the interest is compounded the better—semi-annual compounding could save you hundreds of dollars or more in interest.

If you’re not comfortable negotiating on your own, a mortgage broker will do that on your behalf for free. Mortgage brokers are paid a finder’s fee by the lender. There’s no charge for a pre-approval and no obligation. “We’ve always used mortgage brokers,” says Anne Langevin. “When you go into a bank you have to haggle for a lower rate. My husband and I don’t like to haggle.”

Normally variable-rate mortgages are a better deal than fixed-rate mortgages because you pay a premium for the security of locking into a rate. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case right now, says Jason Heath. “Fixed and variable rates have almost been identical for five years—2.9% on fixed and 2.8% on variable,” he says. “So, arguably the cost of locking into a fixed-rate mortgage is so cheap that it’s more compelling to do so.”

Watch the fine print 

Securing a low interest rate can shave years off a mortgage, but equally important are the terms of your contract. “Not looking into that and just going by the rate can get you into trouble,” says Calgary mortgage broker Joe Jacobs. For instance, when the Bank of Montreal was the first major lender to drop its five-year lending rate to 2.99% early in 2012, you couldn’t break the mortgage to switch to another lender. “That’s a fairly significant thing,” says Jacobs, “but a lot of clients didn’t know what that was.”

This is where experienced mortgage brokers can make a difference, he says. They will review any restrictions or potential penalties on the mortgage that may end up costing you far more than a small rate difference.

Prepayment privileges also go a long way toward helping pay off a mortgage faster. It may seem unfair, but most mortgages limit your ability to pay off your debt early because the financial institutions will lose the interest revenue that they were expecting. Most mortgages allow borrowers to make annual prepayments of 10% to 20% of principal, without extra fees, with the increased payment amount going directly towards the principal. Just be sure to inquire about the details, as some “no frills” mortgages may prohibit this option. Also be aware that payout penalties—the fees you’ll pay if you break your mortgage early—can sometimes cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The right amortization 

Those who want to pay off their mortgages sooner should choose the shortest possible amortization within their financial means, or, as Moshe Milevsky, puts its: “as short as possible until it hurts.” While the typical amortization period is 25 years, it can be as short as 15 years, or as long as 35 years (if you made a down payment of 20% or more on your home). Forcing yourself to pay off the mortgage in fewer years translates into lower interest costs and substantial savings. The major hitch, however, is that your regular payments will be much higher.

To give yourself the best of both worlds, Vancouver mortgage broker Mark Fidgett advises going with a longer amortization, but setting your regular payments higher with prepayment privileges. In effect, you could be paying off a 20-year mortgage in 10 years, but you’d also have the flexibility to switch back to smaller installments if you were to experience any changes like a job loss or the birth of a child. “That way, you’re in control,” says Fidgett. Your payment schedule can also make a big difference. Payments can be made every month, twice a month, every two weeks or weekly. Going with one of the latter two options is preferable because it will accelerate your payments by an additional two weeks every year. For instance, over a 25-year amortization period on a $350,000 home with a 3% rate you would save more than $18,000 in interest by going with an accelerated biweekly plan.

Prioritize your mortgage 

Maximizing your down payment and procuring the best rate and terms possible will save you thousands of dollars. But extra payments will have the biggest impact. To do that, you’ll have to make some tough decisions about your spending and cut out non-essential items, such as family vacations and other luxuries. You may need to stop saving for retirement, depending how serious you are about being free of your mortgage. While that may seem extreme, those who free up their home debt quickly can easily make up for lost investment time later on, provided they funnel cash that previously went to their mortgage into retirement savings.

Remember that paying off debt has the same impact as saving, as both add to your net worth. However, most people’s retirement money is in investments that may or may not gain value, while money paid against the mortgage gives you a guaranteed return by saving you interest.

Nicholas Hui, an auto parts salesman, and his wife Kathy Chan, a law firm marketing manager, followed this strategy, paying off their $434,000 mortgage on their Markham, Ont. home in six years. “We didn’t have extravagant lifestyles,” he says. “We didn’t go to Europe or anything.” Instead, they opted for an open mortgage, which has a higher interest rate but no penalty for making extra payments. Several years of sacrifice and a few $20,000 and $30,000 lump-sum payments helped them meet their goal. These days, they’re quickly catching up on their RRSPs and have started RESPs for their young children—all without the burden of a large mortgage hanging over their heads.

The real key to paying off your home faster is to make sure you get a mortgage that allows you to make extra payments throughout the year and take advantage of them. “That’s the most likely way you’re going to pay off your mortgage a bit quicker,” says Heath. He says borrowers are less likely to make extra payments if they are only allowed to make a single lump-sum contribution on an anniversary date.

Another strategy for paying off your mortgage faster is to increase your regular payments to the maximum allowed without penalty, typically 10% to 15%. Some mortgage contracts also allow borrowers to double their payments. That was one of the strategies Anne and Rene Langevin used to pay off their $210,000 home in less than five years. In addition to making prepayments of 15% to 20% annually, says Anne, “we doubled-up payments whenever we could.”

Paying off your mortgage early isn’t easy, but you’ll thank yourself for it later on. Back in Port Hope, Heidi Croot and Phil Carey are living proof. These days, the couple enjoy living debt-free in their country home, which sits on seven acres of lush property in Ontario’s Northumberland County Forest. Although the two have socked away a nice chunk of money for retirement, Croot still enjoys working part-time to earn additional income—but at a far more relaxed pace. Budget vacations have long since been done away with, too. “We take more expensive ones now,” says Croot. “Africa is on the horizon. We did Maui last November.” All the sacrifices the couple made years ago to free themselves of mortgage debt have paid off. As Croot puts it, “It’s good to be alive and in the driver’s seat.”

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