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Canadian mortgage debt rises to over $1 trillion on high prices, low interest

Low interest rates and a hot housing market helped push Canada’s total residential mortgage debt to a record $1 trillion this year, but a cooling real-estate market is expected to slow further accumulation, says the chief economist of Canada’s mortgage industry association.

The value of outstanding mortgages is now 7.6 per cent higher than it was last year, the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals said in its annual report released Monday.

“We’re still seeing a lot of movement into home ownership and that’s what’s driving the growth of debt,” said Will Dunning, CAAMP’s chief economist.

“The growth will gradually decelerate but we’re still looking at rates of six and a half per cent or so, so still fairly rapid,” Dunning said.

This year’s growth was higher than the average annual increase is around 7.1 per cent. However, it is still much lower than it was in the early 2000s, when debt growth hovered closer to 10 per cent year over year.

Higher home prices drove many Canadians to borrow heavily to finance-purchases, while a low interest rate environment encouraged others to refinance loans and consolidate debt, the CAAMP report said.

The low interest rate environment has enabled some consumers to take on bigger mortgages than they might otherwise have been able to carry, while it has encouraged others to borrow against their homes.

Recent housing market data points to a massive downshift in housing market activity.

Less activity in Canada’s resale home market and moderating housing starts will mean fewer people taking on new mortgages, Dunning said.

“That (slowdown) now and in the near future going to result in less mortgage takeout as those sales get closed,” he said.

Canada’s housing market has been on a tear for much of the past year after the Bank of Canada sent its trend-setting policy rate to an emergency low of 0.25 per cent to stimulate borrowing and consumer spending.

Buyers, spurred by easy access to relatively cheap borrowing, rushed into the market and competed aggressively for homes, which drove prices to record highs.

The market has been cooling in recent months as many sales were pushed ahead to the beginning of the year in advance of tighter mortgage qualification rules, a new tax regime in B.C. and Ontario and higher interest rates.

Meanwhile, the Bank of Canada’s policy rate has been hiked three times to one per cent, still historically low. The central bank is expected to take a pause on rate hikes until the middle of next year, giving mortgage holders more time to refinance at low rates.

Most Canadians have heeded warnings from economists — including the Bank of Canada — about growing debt levels and took advantage of low interest rates to refinance and pay off other debts, CAAMP said.

The report found 18 per cent of mortgage holders have taken equity out of their homes to free up extra cash. Almost half of mortgage holders who borrowed against their homes cited a need for “debt consolidation or repayment” and the average amount borrowed against home equity was $46,000.

The association said that most mortgage holders appear to be comfortable with their debt levels and that the vast majority — about 84 per cent — said they could afford at least a $300 or 30 per cent increase in their monthly mortgage payment, Dunning said.

The association asked approximately 2,000 Canadians surveyed how much of an interest rate hike they could withstand. The average Canadian monthly mortgage payment is about $1,025 and the average homeowner has room for $1,056 per month on top of current costs, the report found.

However, about 350,000 out of 5.65 million, or about six per cent of Canadian mortgage holders, would be challenged by rate rises of less than one per cent, CAAMP said.

“Most of the people who have low tolerances for increased payments have fixed-rate mortgages,” the reports said. (So) by the time their mortgages are due for renewal, their financial capacity will have expanded and their mortgage principal will have been reduced.”

Canadians continue to favour fixed-rate mortgages and a five-year fixed-rate mortgage remains the most popular option despite the fact that variable rates have become much less expensive than fixed rates, the report found.

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