Should you break your mortgage?
Breaking your mortgage to get a better interest rate could save you thousands of dollars. Here’s what you should consider before taking that step.
Breaking your mortgage to get a better interest rate could save you thousands of dollars. Here’s what you should consider before taking that step.
Joakim Tjernell was pretty proud of himself—he’d done a damn good job of shopping for a mortgage. It was back in June of 2009 and Tjernell, a translator in his 30s, had been eyeing units in a slick modern condo building on Toronto’s Bathurst Street for a while. There was a lot of paperwork—Tjernell’s wife is a freelance graphic designer, so they had to prove that she had regular income. “This was the first time we had a mortgage, so we were nervous about getting approved,” he recalls.
But not only were they approved, their mortgage broker came through with a great offer on a variable-rate mortgage from Scotiabank. The $280,000 loan had a 25-year amortization and a floating rate of just 2.90% to start. Tjernell was sure he’d bagged a deal.
But in May 2018, he got an email newsletter from his broker suggesting that he could do even better. Tjernell thought all variable-rate mortgages were the same, but that wasn’t the case. His original mortgage offered a rate of prime, plus 40 basis points (there are 100 basis points in one percentage point). But the newsletter was offering variable-rate mortgages at prime, minus 40 basis points. Was a difference of just 0.8 of a percentage point worth switching for?
When his mortgage broker ran the numbers, he found out it was. Breaking his old mortgage to switch to the new one could mean a savings of more than $5,000 in interest payments over the lifetime of Tjernell’s mortgage—enough for a couple of nice vacations for him and his wife. “As soon as I realized that, I paid the $1,800 penalty, and kept the amortization period the same at 25 years,” he says. “I’m now saving $150 a month on my payments.”
If you’ve been watching rates lately, you may be wondering if you should break your mortgage, too. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, already-low interest rates were slashed further, and they now sit at new historic lows. Breaking your existing mortgage to switch to a lower rate could save you hundreds of dollars every month—or knock years off the length of your mortgage so you own your home sooner.
But you have to be careful. The era of exceptionally cheap borrowing is likely coming to an end, maybe as early as next year, with the Bank of Canada suggesting rate hikes will be needed to tame inflation. (Read more about what higher interest rates could mean for your mortgage.) Beyond factoring rising rates into your decision-making, the old caveat still rings true: Your mortgage is probably the most complex contract you’ll ever sign. Some penalties can cost $20,000 or more.
The key is to run the numbers and get some advice before you approach your lender. Luckily, a quick analysis to see if you’ll come out ahead is relatively painless and free. Read on for info on how to do it.
In most cases, the answer is yes. When you signed your mortgage contract, you agreed to a whole slew of conditions, and one was a penalty for exiting your payment schedule before the current term is up (most terms are one, three or five years in length).
It doesn’t matter whether you do it by paying the whole mortgage off in cash or by switching to a new mortgage, if you depart from the repayment schedule you agreed to before the term is up, you’re breaking your mortgage. Your lender will get less in interest payments out of you than you initially agreed to, so there will usually be a penalty.
“When people buy a home, they’re not thinking of breaking their mortgage,” says Vince Gaetano, principal mortgage broker with owlmortgage.ca in Toronto. “But the reality is that almost 40% of mortgage-holders will have to refinance, and when they do, they’ll have to deal with their penalty.”
In other words, the question you should ask yourself isn’t, “Am I allowed to break my mortgage?” It’s more: “Why do I want to break my mortgage?”
Your first step is to decide what you want to achieve. Most people are looking to accomplish one of three things: To reduce the total cost of their mortgage, to consolidate other debt (such as outstanding credit card bills) into their mortgage, or to reduce their monthly payments.
Be clear about your goal, because it will have a big impact on how you proceed.
Lowering the cost of your mortgage can be done in two ways: You can keep the total length of the mortgage—called the amortization period—the same and reduce each monthly payment; or you can keep your monthly payments the same, and shave years off your amortization period so you’ll own your home outright sooner. Either way, it could save you a pile of money.
The rule used to be that it’s worth breaking your mortgage when you can get a new rate that’s at least two percentage points lower than your current one. But that’s all changed. Because the rates are so low now, it’s worth switching for a much smaller drop.
For instance, if you had a five-year fixed mortgage at 5.0% you might be eyeing a current rate of 3.39%. That’s a difference of less than two percentage points, but it actually means reducing your rate by more than a quarter, which could translate into reducing each monthly payment by 30%. If you were paying $1,500 a month before, you’d save about $450 every month. Most mortgage experts would agree that’s worth switching for.
Because each percentage point drop represents a bigger proportion of the total rate, the new rule is that if you see a rate that’s just 30 basis points lower than your current rate, it’s worth running the numbers. Depending on the penalty for breaking your existing mortgage, you could see big savings.
If you’re unsure whether it’s worth breaking your mortgage, online mortgage calculators can quickly estimate what you’ll pay in penalties and how much you stand to save in interest fees based on the terms of your mortgage contract.
There are penalties for breaking both fixed- and variable-rate mortgages, but the penalties for breaking a variable mortgage are usually much lower.
“Any time you break a mortgage, the penalty may be too high to make it worth it,” says Kim Gibbons, a mortgage broker with Mortgage Intelligence in Toronto. “But you can usually recapture that penalty pretty quickly if you have a variable-rate mortgage.”
In this case, calculating that penalty is easy. Canada’s National Housing Act mandates that for variable-rate mortgages, the penalty is always equivalent to three months’ interest. For instance, imagine you have a $200,000 variable mortgage at 3.8%, amortized over 25 years. On this particular mortgage, let’s say your monthly payment is $1,030, and the interest rate portion is $627. Multiply that by three and you get $1,881. That’s your penalty.
Sometimes, a quick estimate is enough to make you feel confident about whether you should break your mortgage or not. If you want to know roughly how much you’ll pay for doing so, consult an online mortgage penalty calculator.
A fixed-rate mortgage has a much higher penalty. It’s also much more difficult to calculate what the penalty is. In broad strokes, the penalty is based on the interest rate differential (IRD), which is the difference between the rate of your current mortgage and the rate the lender can now get for their money. Ask a mortgage broker to calculate it for you.
To show you just how stiff the penalties can be, Marcus Tzaferis, founder of Cannect in Toronto, estimates that a typical penalty for breaking a $200,000, five-year, fixed-rate mortgage locked in at 5.9% after two years, given a 3% prime rate, would be roughly $12,000. Today’s prime rate is 2.45%.
Refinancing, or breaking your mortgage to switch to a new one, isn’t much different from applying for your first mortgage. So you’ll still have to fill in an application and go through a credit check. You may also have to do a title search, and there may be appraisal and inspection fees. The process can be quite lengthy and expensive—it can cost $1,000 or more.
If you’re planning on selling your house in a few years, it’s probably not worth it. You may barely break even—or you could even lose money due to the penalty and administrative costs. On the other hand, if you plan on staying put for the long run, refinancing can save you a bundle.
Let’s run a few numbers to find out. We’ll start by looking at what happens when you break an existing variable mortgage to switch to another variable mortgage with better terms. (If you already know the new mortgage terms available to you, a mortgage refinance calculator can give you an estimate of the potential savings.)
Imagine that you have the $200,000, 25-year variable mortgage that we described earlier. When you took the mortgage, the rate you agreed to was prime, plus 80 basis points. Let’s assume that today your rate is 3.8%. In this case, your monthly payment comes to $1,030. Of that, $627 goes towards paying your interest.
The new variable-rate mortgage you’re looking to switch to offers a better rate. Instead of charging prime plus 80 basis points, the new mortgage charges prime, minus 70 basis points (or, 2.3%). Because of the lower rate, switching would save you $14,167 in interest payments over five years. As we mentioned earlier, the penalty for breaking your existing mortgage is equal to three months worth of interest, or $1,881. In addition, you would pay about $1,000 in administrative costs. After the penalty and the admin costs, you would save $11,286 over five years. That’s a lot of money.
Now let’s look at what happens when you break a fixed-rate mortgage to switch to a variable-rate mortgage. This situation is more complex, so we asked for Tzaferis’ help again to get us through the calculations.
In this case, let’s say you’re two years into a five-year $200,000 mortgage at 5.9%, and you want to switch to a variable-rate mortgage at 3.0%. You still have 36 months remaining on your mortgage, so if you kept the mortgage until the end of your five-year term, you would pay a total of $32,532 in interest over the remaining months. On the other hand, if you broke the mortgage and took the new rate of 3.0% (and the rate stayed at 3.0% for the rest of your term), then you would pay $15,815 in interest over the next 36 months. So, you would enjoy a savings of $16,717 in interest payments. Sounds pretty good, so far.
However, you still have to pay the penalty and administrative costs. As mentioned, a typical penalty for breaking your fixed-rate mortgage is about $12,000, and you would pay about $1,000 in administrative costs. Your total savings would be $3,717 ($16,717 minus the penalty of $12,000 and the $1,000 admin cost). In this case, it would probably be worth it, but just barely. To calculate the total potential savings from breaking your fixed-rate mortgage, ask a mortgage broker to run a few scenarios for you. Many will do it for free.
|Current mortgage rate
|New mortgage rate
|Years remaining in the term
|Savings on interest
In both scenarios above, the new mortgages were variable, but a lot of people could benefit from switching to a new fixed-rate mortgage too. After all, the five-year fixed rate of 3.39% isn’t much higher than the 3.0% variable rate.
Which one should you choose? The decision ultimately comes down to whether you want a lower rate with more uncertainty, or a slightly higher rate that’s more predictable. Historically, the majority of homeowners have opted for variable-rate mortgages which go up and down with prime, and studies have shown that over the past couple of decades, those who went variable have done better. But some brokers say we’re turning a corner, and the past is not a good indicator of what the future will bring.
Interest rates in Canada have slowly declined for decades, a trend that culminated in March 2020, with the Bank of Canada’s decision to lower its policy interest rate to an all-time low of 0.25%. However, all evidence suggests rate hikes are on the horizon. If rates increase over the next few months and years, as many expect they will, variable-rate mortgage holders could lose out.
If that scenario would keep you up at night, you might prefer a fixed-rate mortgage, where the interest rate stays the same throughout the term of the mortgage.
Elizabeth Campbell, a single executive secretary in her 50s, says she’s held fixed-rate terms on her three-bedroom, semi-detached home in Scarborough, Ont., since she bought it. And she has no regrets. “It’s too risky for me to take a variable-rate mortgage,” she says. “My job is pretty secure, and I know that I can handle the monthly payments. Whether interest rates go up or down a little over the lifetime of my mortgage, I don’t really pay it much mind. I just feel secure knowing that I can budget around the rate I’m paying now—4.39%.” (We’ve changed her name to protect her privacy.)
You may be tempted to walk into your local bank and sign on the dotted line for the first mortgage that you qualify for, but it pays to shop around. We’ve heard of long-term customers getting excellent rates from their banks, but you should also try out a mortgage broker or compare rates online. This will give you access to professionals trained to represent you, the borrower, in obtaining financing from a variety of lending sources. In most provinces, mortgage brokers are required to be licensed.
Mortgage brokers can seek out the best mortgage to suit your specific situation, whether it’s with a bank, trust company, credit union or private funds. Keep in mind, however, that just like there are good and bad lawyers and teachers, there are good and bad mortgage brokers too.
Finally, before you start looking around, make sure you actually have a choice. With some mortgages, if you want to renegotiate, it has to be with your existing lender, at least until the original term is up. Watch for this clause on your new mortgage, too. It’s better to go for a slightly higher rate than to be tied to one lender for the entire term.
Until now, we’ve been assuming that you’re refinancing to lower the cost of your mortgage, but many people refinance to consolidate their debt too. In this situation, you’re looking to roll high-interest-rate debt—such as credit card balances—into your mortgage to simplify your debt payments and lower your interest rate. By doing so, you could reduce your rate from 19%—the typical rate on a credit card—to 3% and save thousands of dollars in interest payments.
That’s what Roxanne Saunders did in August 2018. At the time, she had $50,000 in high-interest rate debt on her HBC credit card. Hoping to retire in four years and clean up her finances, Saunders looked at the equity she had in her home—about $255,000 on a $430,000 condo—and renegotiated a $225,000 mortgage at a variable rate of 2.25%.
She says it’s given her some much-needed breathing room in her monthly budget, paying $600 a month less in total debt payments than before she refinanced. “I think I’ve put the bank manager’s children through college with the money I’ve spent on interest payments over the years,” says Saunders. “But I plan to retire at 55, sell the condo and invest in a retirement property outside of the city. This plan works well for me.”
The final reason many people refinance isn’t a happy one: It’s because they’re struggling to make their monthly mortgage payments. This can be due to unemployment, illness or some other unforeseen circumstance—like a pandemic that suddenly shutters much of the economy. In this case, the goal is just to get those monthly payments lower, no matter what the cost. And unfortunately, there often is one: you can end up paying more over the long run as a result.
The typical strategy in this case is to lengthen the amortization period; for instance, to break a 25-year mortgage and get a 30-year one. Each payment will be lower, but you’ll be making them for five more years, so the total cost of your home will be higher. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to refinance at a lower rate. That will help to offset the longer amortization period, and you could even come out ahead.
When you refinance, you need to look at the same issues that you did for your first mortgage. Double check for unnecessary or inflated fees for your new mortgage, some of which may not be disclosed up front. Check for newly introduced or higher penalties for breaking the new mortgage.
“Many financial institutions don’t give you a concrete idea up front of what the penalties for breaking your mortgage actually are,” says Gaetano. “Often what the penalties actually are, and what you think they are, can be two different things.”
Have your lawyer read your mortgage, and be sure to read it from start to finish. If at any time you don’t understand a particular statement or clause, make sure to get it clarified before signing.
It’s not going to be the most entertaining evening of your life, but Sandra Martin, a journalist in Toronto, did it and she’s glad she did. To her surprise, she found a mistake that could have cost them thousands of dollars. “The interest rate we were agreeing to pay for the term of the mortgage had been written down as ‘prime plus 0.484’ instead of ‘prime plus 0.448’. We made sure it was changed before we signed the final papers.” The 4 and the 8 were switched. It was a typo, sure, but it could have been a costly one.
When you’re considering a new mortgage, ask if the interest is compounded monthly or semi-annually. (Compounding refers to when the interest is calculated both on the original loan or deposit, plus the interest accumulated to date). The less frequently the interest is compounded the better—semi-annual compounding could save you hundreds of dollars. Also, ask how often the rate changes. Most variable mortgages have rates that fluctuate monthly. However, there are several that only change every three months. This offers you more protection when rates are rising.
Finally, consider the prepayment options. The last thing on your mind when you take out a mortgage may be whether the bank will let you pay more than the minimum, but this is important. Four years from now, your salary might be higher, and if you’re allowed to pay extra, it goes straight to the principal and can knock years off your mortgage.
Most mortgages allow you to prepay between 10% and 25% of the mortgage principal annually. But Chad Robinson, president of Align Mortgage Corporation in Ottawa, says that it’s a growing trend to offer customers a “no frills” product that severely limits your ability to prepay or to switch from one lender to another until the term of the mortgage is up. “The rate appears attractive; however savvy customers can find equal or better rates without the handcuffs,” says Robinson.
Finally, if you have a prepayment option on your mortgage and you plan to refinance, make your annual prepayment—usually between 10% and 25%—before getting the penalty calculated. If you don’t have the money, your mortgage broker will often give you a one-day loan, so your penalty can be reduced. “Very few people use this key option before having their mortgage penalty calculated,” says Tzaferis. “But this simple step can save you hundreds of dollars up front.”
With files from Justin Dallaire. A version of this story first appeared in the Dec/Jan 2010 issue of MoneySense.
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