The 2017 first-time home buyers guide for Canadians

Welcome to the 2017 edition of our first-time home buyers guide. This is designed to be a definitive outline of everything you need to know about buying your first home in Canada — from getting the best interest rate on your mortgage to making sure you’re taking advantage of every tax credit available to you. It’s a deep dive and we advise you to use the buttons above to navigate quickly to the relevant sections.

There have been a number of recent changes to mortgage rules by federal and provincial governments in recent years. Below, we guide you through all the steps you need to know about getting a mortgage and buying your first home in Canada in 2017.

So let’s get started.

Securing your mortgage

Buying a home is expensive. Rarely does a person actually have enough money to buy one outright. This is where lenders come in, giving you the chance to take out a loan that will be secured by the value of your home. That’s known as a mortgage. Let’s take a dive into what a mortgage is, the different types available to you and how you service one over its lifetime to eventually fully own your home.

What is a mortgage?

A mortgage is a loan that is backed by real property. It is provided by a lender, and will be bound by terms (which include the interest charged on the mortgage). When you qualify for a mortgage, you will be given a specific amount of time by your lender to pay it off. Failure to make payments can result in the bank taking over your home as collateral against your failure to repay your loan.

What is a mortgage term?

Mortgage terms range from six months to ten years, and refer to how long you and the bank agree you will pay a certain rate, or in the case of variable rate mortgages, how long the rate will fluctuate. Typically at the end of a term, you sit down to refinance your mortgage — at which point, you can also change from a fixed to variable rate, or vice-a-versa.

What is amortization?

Amortization refers to how long you have until you must pay off your loan. This shouldn’t be confused with your term — that refers to how long you’ve agreed to a certain rate. Amortization periods in Canada are capped at 25 years, with certain exceptions. Prior to 2012, amortization periods ran as long as 35 years.

Fixed versus variable: what’s the difference?

Fixed-rate mortgages have a constant interest rate on them over the term of the mortgage. Variable mortgages, meanwhile, track market interest rates and so fluctuate. In economic cycles where interest rates are going lower, variable rate mortgages often offer lower interest rates than fixed-rate mortgages. If rates are rising, however, variable-rate mortgages expose borrowers to higher interest rates.

Open versus closed mortgages

Closed mortgages force you to pay a fixed amount of money every month, all the way until your amortization period is over. While these traditionally offer you a lower interest rate, you will be charged penalties if you pay off your mortgage faster than the amortization period. In contrast, open mortgages allow you to pay off a mortgage faster than the principal and interest payment every month, but because the bank will profit less in this case, these types of mortgages come with higher interest rates.

What is a prepayment charge?

A prepayment charge is the cost you incur if you decide to break or renegotiate your mortgage terms before the term period is over. You may do this if you negotiated a fixed-rate mortgage, only to see mortgage rates subsequently tumble in the following years. You can also incur prepayment charges if you overpay a closed mortgage. Incurring these charges only make sense if you stand to financially benefit from them — such as if you negotiated a mortgage during a period of high interest rates, and negotiating a lower rate will save you thousands of dollars a year. Prepayment charges vary by lender and by loan.

How large should your mortgage be?

There are two metrics of affordability that can help you determine how large of a mortgage you an afford. Based on the gross debt service ratio (GDS), the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. recommends that your monthly housing costs should be no more than 32% of your gross monthly income. They also offer up another metric total debt service ratio (TDS), which takes into account all your loans and debt payments. Have a look at both below.

How do I qualify?

Qualifying for a mortgage means having a source of income, having a good credit score and the ability to service your future debt payments. In order to determine this, your bank or broker is going to want to see a lot of documents. Be prepared to bring proof of income such as pay stubs, proof of large assets such as cars, recent financial statements from your bank and of course, your credit score. Once the lender sees all your paperwork and is satisfied you’re a trustworthy borrower, your mortgage loan will be opened and ready to use.

Should I get pre-approved?

Getting pre-approved for a mortgage can save you a lot of trouble. It will help you know right off the bat how expensive of a home you can afford. Having a pre-approved mortgage will also allow you to show any prospective buyers that you’re serious about buying a home — giving you a potential edge if something like a bidding war crops up.

What’s a mortgage broker?

A mortgage broker is a licensed specialist that has access to multiple lenders, often buying bulk loans and securing discounted insurance rates as a result. This allows them to offer mortgages with more competitive rates than you might find walking into your local bank branch. Many of these loans themselves originate at the big banks, meaning they’re not any less liquid than what you would get at major lender.

Banks versus brokers

The banks often advertise a certain mortgage rate that is available to their customers. While you can always try and negotiate, some banks may not offer you that luxury depending on circumstances such as your income and your credit score. Banks are certainly convenient, allowing you to manage your mortgage in the same place as your chequing account and credit card. You’re not likely to get the best rate without shopping around, however. And not shopping around can cost you tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost money over the lifetime of your mortgage.

Getting the best rate

Shopping around for your mortgage rate is key. The majority of Canadians still only consult one source (often their bank) when searching for a mortgage. But you’ll never get the best rate that way. Use tools like our rate comparison page to help you find the best mortgage rate for you.

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Down payment 101

Your down payment can make a significant impact on how affordable your home is. Being smart with your down payment can save you a lot of money on your monthly mortgage payment. Here’s what you need to know.

What is a down payment?

Essentially, a down payment is the portion you put down towards the value of your home right up front. This payment is then supplemented by the amount someone is approved for with a mortgage.

What’s the minimum down payment rule in Canada?

In Canada, the minimum down payment someone must be able to make is calculated as a percentage of the home’s purchase price. Depending on how much that house costs, the minimum down payment amounts vary.

For the portion of a home’s purchase price below $500,000, the minimum down payment is 5%.

For the portion of a home’s purchase price from $500,000 to $999,999, the minimum down payment is 10%.

For homes valued $1 million or more, the minimum down payment must be 20%.

What’s the 20% rule?

The 20% rule is based on the CMHC rule that any mortgage taken out by someone with a down payment that’s less than 20% of their purchase price will be required to insure their mortgage with CMHC. These are called insured mortgages, and like all insurance policies, it comes with premiums. These premiums are a percentage of your home’s purchase price, but that percentage is determined by the size of your down payment. Typically, it’ll only be 1.80% - 3.60%, but that still adds thousands of dollars to the cost of your home. Use the CMHC calculator to determine your premium.

Note that because homes valued at $1 million or more require 20% down payments as a minimum, those high-value homes do not qualify for CMHC insurance.

How big should your down payment be?

Really, this question has a different answer for each individual. When considering how much to put down, you have to level with yourself and be realistic about how much money you have. Keep in mind there will be additional costs to cover apart from your down payment.

You also have to figure out whether it is a better financial decision for you to pay less up front and have to pay for the CMHC insurance, but offset it by relying on strong price appreciation, a lower mortgage rate, or by renting out part of the home and making the higher cost more affordable.

What is the First-time Home Buyers Plan and is it right for you?

If you’re looking for a way to boost your down payment and you have an RRSP, you can withdraw up to $25,000 from it in a single calendar year to help get you a home. You won’t need to pay taxes on the withdrawn money or pay interest on the money. You will, however, need to pay that money back within fifteen years.

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Taking advantage of tax credits

Filing your taxes change when you own a home, so it’s good to know what tax breaks are available to you. There aren’t an overwhelming number of tax credits for homeowners, but it can get a little tricky depending on how you plan to use your home. Here are some things to remember.

The Home Buyer’s Plan (HBP)

Before you even own a home, it can affect your taxes, should you decide to use money from your RRSP as part of your down payment. The Home Buyer’s Plan lets you withdraw up to $25,000 per year to buy or build an eligible home from your RRSP without it affecting your taxable income. It also allows you to repay the amount you withdraw without any interest or penalties, as long as you do so within 15 years. You must begin repayment the second year after withdrawal. If you used the maximum amount, that means you’ll need to pay back $1,666.67 every tax year.

The HBP can be extremely convenient if you need funds to boost your down payment, but want to avoid expensive options such as a loan.

If you participate in the program, you will need to report your repayments on your income tax and benefit return. Read more about how to do that here

Claim the Home buyers' amount on Line 369

First-time home buyers* can claim up to $5,000 for the purchase of an eligible home as long as:

The house is owned by you or your spouse/common-law partner

Purchasers have not lived in another home they owned in the year of acquisition or the previous four years

*Note that persons with disabilities are exempt from the first-time buyer requirement for this credit

Housing type eligibility is quite comprehensive with qualifying homes defined as:

  • single-family houses
  • semi-detached houses
  • townhouses
  • mobile homes
  • condominium units
  • apartments in duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, or apartment buildings

GST/HST new housing rebate

This credit is available to buyers who intend to make their new house their (or their relation’s) primary place of residence. This applies to those who:

  • Purchased a new house, constructed a new house, or substantially renovated a house. This includes housing on leased land with some exceptions if the lease is more than 20 years old or has the option to purchase
  • Purchased shares in a co-operative housing complex
  • Constructed or substantially renovated your home, either on your own or having hired professionals, as long as the fair market value of the home once completed is less than $450,000

For more information on differences between provinces, as well as help calculating your rebate or filling out the necessary documents, see the full guide here.

Line 398 – Home accessibility expenses

If you renovate your home to accommodate a senior (65 years or older) or person with disability (whether that person is you or your spouse), you may be able to claim the renovation as a medical expense for an additional tax credit.

Eligible renovations are considered any enduring alteration that is integral to the dwelling as a whole and:

  • Allows a qualifying individual to access, or be more mobile/functional within the home
  • Reduces risk of harm or injury to the qualifying individual

Note that goods or services provided by a family member of the qualifying person can’t be claimed with this credit. However if you perform the work yourself you can claim expenses for:

  • building materials
  • fixtures
  • equipment rentals
  • building plans
  • permits

You can’t claim the cost of tools or the value of your labour. Other ineligible expenses include:

  • financing costs for the qualifying renovation
  • the cost of renovation incurred mainly to increase or maintain the value of the dwelling
  • the cost of routine repair or maintenance of the accessibility upgrades
  • amounts paid for household appliances
  • the cost of housekeeping, security monitoring, gardening, outdoor maintenance, or similar services

Line 219 – Moving expenses

If you happen to be moving for a job or for education purposes, you may be eligible to claim the cost of your move.

To qualify, you must be moving at least 40 kilometres closer to your new work or school:

  • moved and established a new home to work or run a business at a new location; or
  • moved to be a student in full-time attendance in a post-secondary school program

Home business tax breaks

Businesses can claim all sorts of expenses on their tax returns, including those with home businesses. You can claim a portion of your mortgage and utilities as a business expense if you use part of your home for your business.

To do this, you’ll need to measure the square footage of your home office/business space, then calculate its percentage of the home’s total square footage. That percentage will be the amount you claim on your tax return.

Note that the amount you can deduct for home business expenses can’t be more than the business’s net income before deductions. Essentially, tax breaks can’t be used to turn an unprofitable business into a profitable one.

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The house hunt

Do I need a real estate agent?

As a first time home buyer — yes, you probably do. Purchasing your first home is no simple task, and it’s in your best interest to have an expert in your corner who can help you every step of the way. Not only will they have exclusive access to listings you likely wouldn’t be able to find yourself, but they’ll also have the knowledge and expertise to help you navigate what will likely be the biggest and most complex purchase you ever make.

The right agent will have a wealth of knowledge about the current market, be a skilled negotiator and will ensure they’re finding you the best property to meet your needs. They’ll be there to provide an objective opinion when you need it, and ultimately will be able to make the process a lot less stressful for you.

But aren’t there real estate websites I can use myself?

If you do like to do things yourself, there are plenty of resources out there to help you in your house hunt. Sites like Zoocasa, RedPin, and BuzzBuzz Home all aggregate listings for you in one, easy-to-use place.

But remember, using a real estate agent and using sites like the ones listed above don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can be working with an agent while also doing your own research — the more you know, the better.

How to pick a neighbourhood

Likely, if you’re looking for a home, you already know what municipality you want to live in based on your career, family, and friends. But how do you pick what neighbourhood you want to live in?

A great way to determine what neighbourhoods will be right for you is to come up with a list of needs and wants. This list will look different for everyone, but some things to consider are:

  • Type of home you want
  • Proximity to work
  • Proximity to transit
  • Access to schools and daycare
  • Access to trails, parks and outdoor space
  • Access to retail and grocery stores
  • General walkability
  • Overall safety

Prioritize this list and decide what are must-haves, and what are just nice-to-haves. Once you do this, you can start to narrow down which neighborhoods might be right for you and start looking for properties within them.

So, you found ‘the one’ — now what?

Well, with the help of your real estate agent and lawyer, you’ll need to put in your offer. If you’re lucky, the seller will accept it and you’ll be the proud new owner of your very first home!

But sadly, closing the deal isn’t always that easy — in hot markets there’s a good chance there could be a bidding war. A bidding war occurs when there are offers from multiple buyers, all competing to snag the property in question.

All prospective buyers will be blind to what others are offering, and the sellers can accept whichever offer they want — it doesn’t have to be the highest price, but could instead have more appealing conditions (or, in many cases, no conditions at all).

Often, to encourage multiple offers on a property, the selling agent of a property will indicate in the listing that offers should be submitted on a certain date in the hopes that a deadline will result in multiple offers. However, there is nothing stopping an interested buyer in submitting an offer at any time — these offers are sometimes called ‘bully offers’, as they’re meant to entice the seller to accept before they receive any other offers.

The selling agent is obligated to notify the seller of every offer they receive, though usually the seller will tell the buyer’s agent to have them wait until the specified time period. Ultimately, it is up to the seller to accept whatever offer they choose — and not surprisingly, it usually comes down to the highest price.

So, what should you do if you find yourself involved in a bidding war? Obviously, this situation can cause even the most level-headed buyers to make rash decisions that could end up being detrimental. Make sure that before you start your house hunt, you fully understand your limits and have a clearly defined maximum budget, as well as understand the impact that your maximum will have on your finances over the long term. Make sure when you do make your offer — you keep your emotions in check and bid logically.

The closing costs

Buying a house is a huge financial decision, and you’ll need to think beyond just mortgage payments and condo fees. You need to also make sure that you’re planning for all of the extra costs associated with homeownership.

Here are the most common closing and after-closing costs to be prepared for:

Home inspection fees

A home inspection is an in-person inspection of a home’s overall condition and structure. An inspector will examine all major elements of a home and indicate any potential issues, along with a ballpark of repair costs, if applicable.

Getting a home inspection is not legally required, though some lenders may require one. Most importantly, though, it could save you big money in the long run. Typically, home inspection costs will range from $300-$600, depending on the size and type of the home.

Land transfer taxes

Land transfer taxes are calculated based on the purchase price of the home, and will vary by province. Some cities (like Toronto) also have a municipal land transfer tax. As an example, if you were to purchase a $750,000 home in Toronto, your land transfer taxes would be $14,475.

The good news? First time home buyers may be eligible for a full or partial refund on land transfer taxes in some provinces. In our earlier example, as a first time buyer of a $750,000 home in Toronto, your rebate would be $7,725.

Legal fees and related expenses

Working with a real estate lawyer as soon as you’ve found a home that you want to put an offer on is important. Your lawyer will be able to help you in reviewing your offer and explaining it in plain terms, as well as with all of the legal work required on closing day.

You’ll need to pay for your lawyer’s time and expertise, as well as disbursements, which are any expenses they incur, such as registrations and supplies that are required. Legal fees and disbursement costs will vary, but you can expect to pay between $1,000-$2,500 in legal fees.

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Don’t forget all these other little costs

…‘cause they're not as “little” as you would have hoped. Housing prices and mortgage loans may dominate the home-buying conversation, but these other costs — often overlooked and not planned for in advance — can really add insult to injury.

Appraisal fees

Before you allow yourself to fall madly in love with a home, you may need to pay for an independent appraisal and get a lay of the land (a.k.a. the market value). An appraisal can cost $300-$500 depending on the property and it will give you a snapshot of the property’s current value — it’s also a factor your mortgage broker will consider before they offer you a loan.

Title insurance

Title insurance is meant to protect buyers against mortgage fraud, identity theft and forgery, and any other issues related to the home’s previous owners. While it’s not legally required, it’s a good idea to have it, and it will typically set you back $250-$350.

Property tax and utility adjustments

Based on when you’re buying your home, you may be required to reimburse the seller for any prepaid property taxes or utility bills that they’ve incurred. These fees will vary.

Furniture

Tables and couches and beds — oh my! A 2015 study in the UK found that homeowners spend £15,215 on average to furnish their three-bedroom homes. Convert that to CAD, and the average is about $25,215. But that number moves up or down depending on the size of your home (e.g. one-bedroom condo versus two-bedroom townhouse) and your tastes (furniture to last a lifetime versus furniture you can live with).

Even more fees

Beyond the costs outlined above, there are several other fees to budget for when purchasing your first home. If you’re financing your home with a mortgage, most lenders will require that you have home insurance (and to be honest, it’s a very smart idea to have regardless).

You’ll also need to pay property taxes, which will vary based on where your home is located, and most lenders will allow you to bundle your property taxes in with your regular mortgage payments.  

Also, keep in mind other fees that are likely to come up, such as moving expenses, utility bills and hook-up fees, furniture — and the list could probably go on.

Oh, and if you’re buying a pre-construction house or condo? You could be on the hook for even more fees — sometimes called ‘new-build fees’. You’ll have to pay the HST on your purchase, though you may be eligible for government rebates. New construction homes are also covered by a warranty program, and these fees could be incorporated into the purchase price or could be due at closing — make sure to find out which. There could also be enrollment fees and solicitors fees owed to the builder.

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What about home insurance?

A home is a physical asset that you sink a lot of money into — if you fail to protect it with insurance, you’re taking a huge risk that could cost you your home and your investment. You should err on the side of caution and get a home insurance policy.

It’s one more thing to plan for when you buy a home, but it’ll be one less thing to worry about if something goes wrong.

What it does

Home insurance protects both the physical structure of your property and the contents inside. If a fire, storm, or other hazard strikes unexpectedly and damages your home or belongings (appliances, furniture, clothes, etc.), an insurance policy will help cover the repair or replacement costs. The same is true if someone breaks into your home and steals your stuff. Plus, it provides liability coverage in the event someone files a claim against you.

What it doesn’t do

A basic home insurance policy will not automatically cover your high-value possessions — think jewelry or rare art. You may have to add these items to your policy separately. Home insurance also won’t cover damages caused by “uninsurable” perils — hazards that could have technically been planned for and avoided. Floods are a good example; most insurance policies won’t cover flood or water damage, especially if your home is located in an area prone to floods.

How do I get it?

Complete a home insurance quote on our site. Once you fill out our form, we’ll scan the market and send you up to 10 customized quotes. Having all your options laid out will help you pick the policy with the best offer.

What if I rent out my property?

That changes the game. Home insurance is meant for people who will be living in and caring for the property they own. If you will be renting out part, or all, of the residence, you should get a policy designed for income properties — not a standard homeowner’s policy.

Why? As a landlord, you’re at greater risk for a liability claim, so you need more liability coverage. Remember: it’s your responsibility to ensure the property is safe and liveable. Also, you need a policy with reduced coverage for the contents inside the property. Besides appliances and maybe furniture, most of the items in the home won't belong to you.

And the renter? To be frank, not your problem. Neither a regular home insurance policy nor an income property policy will cover the tenant’s personal belongings — that's what renters insurance is for.

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Renovations and you

In the hot housing markets of Greater Vancouver and the Golden Horseshoe, homeowners are turning tidy profits by selling their homes. On the flip side, however, the skyrocketing prices mean that selling your home with the hopes of upgrading your living situation is becoming increasingly difficult. So many homeowners are forced to stay put — a situation referred to as ‘housing gridlock’ — and are instead upgrading their situations through home renovations.

Tax Credits

Many of the homes or condos that are within reach of first-time home buyers often need some work. Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of federal tax credits for renovations, unless the first time homebuyer is 65+ before the end of the taxation year, or qualifies as a person with a disability. In which case, they would qualify for the Federal Home Accessibility Tax Credit (HACT). This non-refundable tax credit, which maxes out at $10,000 per year, applies to renovations that improve the safety or accessibility of a home, including hand rails, walk-in tubs, and widened doorways.

There are also provincial home renovation tax credits in B.C., Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick. Similarly, these credits apply to household upgrades to accessibility and safety, with the exception being Quebec, which offers ‘RenoVert’, a refundable tax credit for eco-friendly home renovations. Because provincial tax credits change regularly, it’s advised to keep a close eye on the regulations in your province of residence.

DIY or call a guy?

If upgrades are needed in your new home, you can save money by doing what you can on your own, or pony up and hire a professional. There are pros and cons to each. Here’s a breakdown:

DIY pros

Saves money. The biggest one here is that you can save your cash. Granted some projects, such as plumbing and electrical, require a professional, but leaning on YouTube or knowledgeable friends and family can go a long way in stretching your renovation budget.  

Pride of ownership. A DIY approach to renovations adds a sense of pride about your home; which, for many, is one of the biggest appeals of homeownership.

The more you know. Picking up some handyman skills is invaluable for homeowners. It’s fun, plus it can save you time and money down the road.

DIY cons

Quality of work. Obviously if you’re just learning, the quality of the renovation won’t be at the same level as the pros. Not a big deal if the project is purely cosmetic, but something to keep in mind for larger, more involved undertakings.

Time’s a ticking. If time is a consideration, doing a project yourself might not be your best bet — it’s rarely ever a quick undertaking. But if you’re in no hurry, it could be enjoyable to chip away at some minor renovations.

Contractor pros

They’re pros for a reason. Aside from doing the job faster and with more attention to detail, reliable professional contractors will know what regulations to follow, what (if any) permits are needed, what resources are needed, and when it’s time to contact other contractors.

Time savers. Good contractors will do the job right and do the job efficiently. If you don’t want your renovation dragging out, consider searching ‘general contractors’ in Yelp to see who has the best reviews in your area.

Contractor cons

Expensive. Many first time home buyers will have no idea about what home renovations are needed, let alone how much they should cost. So try to do as much research as possible before hiring a professional; that way you’ll at least have a sense of what you’re looking to spend. Or, try to get a few quotes from different contractors before going ahead with any major renovations. There may be a surprising amount of variance in what’s being charged.

Be careful about scams. Again, many new homeowners don’t know what to expect when it comes to renovations, and unfortunately some contractors will try to take advantage of that. Rely on word-of-mouth, reviews, and multiple quotes before hiring anyone, especially for large and expensive projects. And always ask to see a contractor’s certification before hiring them.

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Additional links and resources:

Our guide is designed to be comprehensive, but there are still additional tools out there that can further help you in your home-buying quest. They include calculators to help you figure out an affordable mortgage and price maps to show you what’s going on in your city. Take a look at some of the helpful links below.

CMHC Mortgage Loan Insurance Overview
CMHC Mortgage Payment Calculator
CMHC Mortgage Affordability Calculator
The Canadian Real Estate Association
CREA National Average Price Map
Housing Market Outlook: Canada Edition
TREB Land Transfer Tax Calculator
Canadian Home Workshop
House & Home YouTube Channel

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Is the Canadian housing market starting to cool?

Change is afoot in the Canadian housing market. The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) reports actual housing sales in April were down 7.5% from a year earlier, and down 1.7% from March