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Fixed or Variable? Floating-Rate Mortgages Losing Their Lustre

September 23, 2020 | Posted by: Lam Lee

It can be one of the most difficult choices for mortgage borrowersfixed rate or variable?

Thanks to historically low spreads between the two, that choice is becoming easier for many.

“If you’re in the trenches shopping for a new mortgage, I’m going to tell you something I’ve rarely told anyone in 13 years in this business: Variable rates are a gamble that you don’t need to take,” RateSpy founder Rob McLister wrote recently in the Globe and Mail.

“There’s little question in my mind that you’ll win for at least a year or two by floating your mortgage rate. But year three is a crap-shoot. And years four and five entail legitimate risk of higher borrowing costs.”

Ron Butler of Butler Mortgages Inc. agrees, adding that when variable rates are 50 to 60 percentage points lower than comparable fixed rates, “variables can flourish, simply by being the lowest available rate and the fact there’s a guaranteed low penalty to break the mortgage,” he told CMT.

“However today, with only 20 bps or less of price difference, variables lose their lustre.”

As of today, some of the most competitive mortgage providers are offering 5-year fixed rates at less than 10 basis points above the lowest variable rates.

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Floating Rates Have Little Room Left to Fall

When prime rate plummeted from 3.95% to 2.45% in March at the height of the pandemic, it lowered mortgage rates for thousands of variable-rate holders. Some are now enjoying floating rates as low as 1.50%.

But for new borrowers, variable rates have largely lost their appeal since prime rate has very little room left to fall, if at all.

And it’s increasingly looking like prime rate is as low as it will go.

Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem has previously put the kibosh on the idea of negative interest rates, and has said, “When you look at the current situation… I’m quite comfortable with the effective lower bound where it is.”

Barring a drastic resurgence of COVID-19 or faltering of the current economic recovery, interest rates are likely staying put for the foreseeable futureand that could be a year or longer.

What Brokers Have to Say

The brokers we contacted are in agreement that fixed rates at these levels are hard to pass up given the stability they offer.

“The premium between a variable-rate mortgage and a fixed-rate mortgage is the price of ensuring that your rate will not go up over the next five years,” said Dan Eisner, founder of True North Mortgage. “That insurance is super cheap right now.”

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