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New rules to dampen home sales in Canada, mortgage lenders warn

A sign advertises a house for sale on a residential street in Toronto.

CHRIS HELGREN/REUTERS

Canada's mortgage lenders say tougher borrowing rules proposed by Canada's banking regulator could reduce the volume of home sales in Canada by 10 per cent to 15 per cent annually as buyers find it harder to qualify for loans.

Mortgage Professionals Canada – an industry association representing lenders, mortgage brokers and mortgage insurers – said the economic impact of proposed stress-testing rule changes could result in 50,000 to 75,000 fewer home sales a year in Canada when combined with other mortgage-rule changes announced last year and a recent increase in interest rates.

Association president Paul Taylor said the impact of the change could cascade further as other buyers will still make purchases, but will qualify for smaller mortgages and buy less-expensive homes.

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"Essentially, everybody is going to step down a rung or two, which means there will be real pressure on all home prices to also fall by a rung or two," Mr. Taylor said in an interview.

The mortgage association is the latest group to air concerns about a proposal from the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) to require home buyers who do not need mortgage insurance – those with down payments of more than 20 per cent of the purchase price – to prove they could still afford their mortgages if interest rates were two percentage points higher than they negotiated.

OSFI published the proposed changes in July with a request for public comment, saying it was aiming at implementing the changes in the fall if the plan proceeds.

The Canadian Home Builders' Association has also voiced concerns about the proposed change, saying Canada could see 20,000 to 30,000 fewer new housing starts annually when combining the proposal with other recent policy changes.

In a submission to OSFI, the builders said a drop in new construction could reduce employment in Canada by between 42,500 and 63,800 jobs annually. Including the impact on resales of existing homes, the total number of jobs lost could be as high as 91,500, the group said.

Builders fear OSFI's latest proposal has the potential for unintended consequences if it ends up helping to trigger the housing market downturn it is trying to buffer against, said Jason Burggraaf, government relations and policy adviser at the association.

"Our concern is that all these consumer confidence signals that are being put out there could in themselves become a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said in an interview.

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"They sort of pile on top of each other, seemingly without any co-ordination. Each one does its little bit, but it's eventually the straw that breaks the camel's back. All of them together especially squeeze the first-time home buyer, who doesn't have access to a significant down payment for their home."

OSFI proposed the rule change in July to bring qualification rules for uninsured mortgages into closer alignment with similar stress-testing rules introduced last year for people who are applying for insured mortgages – those who do not have a 20-per-cent down payment. When those rules were rolled out last October, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said they were aimed at ensuring borrowers do not take on mortgages they cannot afford if interest rates climb.

Ontario Real Estate Association chief executive officer Tim Hudak, who represents real estate agents in the province, said last week the latest change must be assessed on top all the other recent policy reforms, including last year's stress-test rule changes, new foreign-buyers taxes in British Columbia and Ontario, and two recent hikes in interest rates. Mr. Hudak said the cumulative impact "risks capsizing the housing market altogether."

Both the Canadian Home Builders Association and Mortgage Professionals Canada told OSFI the proposed tougher rules could also increase financial system risk by driving more borrowers to use unregulated lenders who do not have to follow OSFI's standards.

They also warned the rules could push some consumers away from long-term, fixed-rate mortgages – which have higher interest rates but leave borrowers less exposed to interest-rate volatility – to shorter-term mortgages with lower interest rates that can more easily qualify under the tougher rules. Such a shift could add risk to the financial system as a whole if more borrowers are exposed to short-term interest rate volatility.

Mortgage Professionals Canada urged OSFI to consider a lower stress-test level, suggesting a methodology that would assess mortgage affordability at about 75 basis points – or three-quarters of a percentage point – higher than the negotiated rate.

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OSFI has not revealed when it will decide on whether to go ahead with the change as proposed, saying only that it will finalize its guideline after reviewing submissions and expects to set an effective date for later in 2017.

Video: Money Monitor: How rising interest rates affect mortgages (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Real Estate Reporter

Janet McFarland is the real estate reporter for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, with a focus on residential real estate trends. She joined Report on Business in 1995, and has specialized in reporting on corporate governance, executive compensation, pension policy, business law, securities regulation and enforcement of white-collar crime. More

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