Spring housing market could trigger mortgage rate wars as Bank of Montreal lowers rate

Sukhi Kang 604-377-1246 www.SukhiKang.com

The spring housing market is expected to bring on a new battle from mortgage lenders as they compete for what has become a shrinking pie in the form of lower real estate sales.

Bank of Montreal struck first on Friday with a five-year closed mortgage rate of 2.99% — down from 3.09% and now the lowest published rate among the big banks — with sources indicating the financial institution’s mortgage specialists are armed with discretionary power to go as low as 2.89%.

As the banks battle it out for consumers skittish about jumping into what more than one analyst sees as an inflated housing market, lenders know their costs have dropped in the past few weeks. The Bank of Canada’s five-year bond rate is in the 1.3% range after being almost at 1.6% at the end of January.

“Perhaps there is pressure to lower rates,” said Gregory Klump, chief economist with the Canadian Real Estate Association, about banks trying to capture customers in a slowing market. “It remains to be seen how much [the real estate market] is going to slow.”

While some predict a collapse in the housing market, so far prices have remained firm and sales have dipped only in the single-digit range from a year ago.

CREA said last month that January prices were up 2% year-over-year, while sales were down 5.2% during the same period. On a seasonally adjusted basis, sales actually climbed 1.3% from December to January.

It’s unclear whether a new round of mortgage rate cuts will have an impact on consumers already used to a prime rate of 3% and long-term mortgage rates even below that.

“I don’t think low rates change their mind on whether they are going to buy or not,” Mr. Klump said. “What it does change is how much property they can afford. The most important thing at this point in the cycle is how confident consumers are of economic prospects going forward.”

The Bank of Montreal may catch some headlines with its new rate, but mortgage brokers have been offering deals as low as 2.84% on a five-year mortgage without any of the restrictions of the BMO mortgage. The rate on a 10-year mortgage is as low as 3.64%, say industry sources.

“You can’t break the BMO mortgage and transfer to another lender,” said Rob McLister, editor of Canadian Mortgage Trends, adding a customer can make a prepayment for only 10% of the value of the mortgage per year instead of the standard 20%.

Mr. McLister said if the bond market continues to go down, he can see rates falling even below the 2.99% threshold BMO establishing.

“They are going to try to keep rates as high as they can for as long as they can,” he said.

As bond rates have dropped, it is has allowed lenders who fund mortgage brokers to lower their rates, making them more competitive with the big banks.

The last time banks started cutting rates in a competitive battle, they drew the wrath of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who has repeatedly expressed concerns about the housing market getting overheated.

Mr. Flaherty has indicated he wants to avoid a crash and has brought in new restrictions — including limiting amortization lengths to 25 years today from as high as 40 years during the housing boom — to cool the market and ensure a soft landing.

“There is uneasiness at the federal level with banks competing on rates. [Ottawa is stepping in], but behind the scenes,” Mr. McLister said.

BMO warned that rates could be going up in the future, making locking in a priority. “There is always competition out there,” said Sameh Elrefaei, head of BMO’s home financing products. “The reason we are doing this now is essentially our customers have been telling us they like this product and they want the certainty of a lower payment and a better rate.”

Others banks appear poised for battle, with one industry source indicating customers can already get a six-month rate hold as low as 2.99% from one major lender.

Farhaneh Haque, director of mortgage advice and real estate-secured lending at Toronto-Dominion Bank, said her financial institution is ready to be competitive.

“There is a lot of margin pressure, but the reality is there is a spring rally and the reality is customers are out there shopping,” Ms. Haque said.

Sukhi Kang

Sukhi Kang

Personal Real Estate Corporation
CENTURY 21 Coastal Realty Ltd.
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