Fixed Rates Compared to Variable Rates

Video #4 – Should You Select a Fixed or a Variable Rate When You Obtain Your Own Mortgage?

One of the first decisions homebuyers and mortgage shoppers face is whether to select a fixed rate or variable rate mortgage.

With a fixed rate mortgage, the mortgage rate and payment you make each month will stay constant for the term of your mortgage. With a variable rate mortgage, however, the mortgage rate will change with the prime lending rate as set by your lender. A variable rate will be quoted as Prime +/- a specified amount, such a Prime – 0.45%. Though the prime lending rate may fluctuate, the relationship to prime will stay constant over your term. This video explains the 2 options in more detail.

Comparing Fixed and Variable Mortgage Rates

You can think of the difference, or spread, between variable and fixed mortgage rates as the price of insurance that lending rates will not increase, more or less. When interest rates are low and are not expected to fall further, it is generally advised to lock in a fixed rate, as variables rates will, at best, stay the same, or increase. On the other hand, if you expect interest rates to fall with some certainty, then a variable rate is preferred, as you will be able to absorb the benefit of paying lower interest. Similarly, if the difference between the variable rate and the fixed rate is significant, it may not be worth paying the premium for the stability protection of a fixed rate.

Fixed and Variable Mortgage Rate Drivers

By and large, fixed mortgage rates follow the pattern of Canada Bond Yields, plus a spread, where bond yields are driven by economic factors such as unemployment, export and inflation.

Variable mortgage rates are driven by the same economic factors, except variable rates fluctuate with movements in the prime lending rate, the rate at which banks lend to their most credit-worthy customers. Variable mortgage rates are typically stated as prime plus/minus a percentage discount/premium. For example, a variable rate could be quoted as prime – 0.8%. So, when the prime rate is, say, 5%, you will pay 4.2% (5%-0.8%) interest.

The Bank of Canada adjusts the prime rate depending on the state of the economy, as determined by the economic factors introduced above. Together, combinations of unemployment, export, and manufacturing values shape the inflation rate. Generally speaking, when inflation is high, the Bank of Canada will increase the prime rate to make the act of borrowing money more expensive. Conversely, when inflation is low, the Bank of Canada will decrease the prime rate to stimulate the economy and improve the attractiveness of borrowing.

In terms of the discount/premium on the prime rate applied to variable rates, mortgage lenders set this based on their desired market share, competition, marketing strategy and general credit market conditions. These are the same factors that drive the spread between lenders’ fixed mortgage rates and bond yields.

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