Securing a mortgage on an unconventional home is tricky, but not impossible

By: Brennan Doherty on March 5, 2024
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This article has been updated from a previous version.

It’s difficult to track down hard data on the number of Canadians living in tiny homes, RVs, energy-efficient green homes, and off-the-grid log cabins, but there appears to be growing interest in these types of unconventional homes – especially with higher costs of living

In 2019, RV dealers started noticing Millennials and Gen Xers were buying RVs in greater numbers, possibly due to unaffordable cottage prices.  

 just after the pandemic hit. And for the last few years, provincial and federal governments have dangled incentives in front of Canadian homeowners who are keen on building or retrofitting greener homes.  

While many opt for these types of living spaces to save money, they may still require financing to make it happen. Securing a mortgage on an unconventional home isn’t as straightforward as a traditional mortgage, though.  

Lenders, especially large banks, are sometimes reluctant to issue mortgages on unconventional properties. The mortgage industry loves consistency and comparability, and a custom-built tiny home or off-the-grid log cabin may not tick either of those boxes. 

The good news is, there are workarounds for adventurous borrowers desperate for a home on the road, on a tiny lot, or in the middle of nowhere. 

Related: When should you leave a city because it’s become too expensive? 

Mortgaging a mobile home 

Believe it or not, mortgages for RVs exist — and for good reason. The purchase price of a new RV can easily reach six figures so, many prospective owners choose to finance their mobile homes rather than pay in full up front. 

Major lenders like Scotiabank, RBC, and TD offer specialized RV loans, as do some automotive lenders. 

According to Go RVing Canada, a coalition of RV manufacturers and dealers, the minimum down payment for an RV typically runs between 10% and 20%, but some companies offer “no money down” options to qualified applicants. The terms can be as flexible as home mortgages, too: Scotiabank, for instance, offers borrowers up to 20 years to pay off their loans.  

Of course, the true cost of an RV goes far beyond the mortgage paperwork. There are fuel and maintenance costs, upkeep, RV insurance, and inspection payments to consider.  

An RV may offer a more free and adventurous life than a home in the suburbs, but its occupants are still bound to their paperwork and cheque books.  

Read more: 10 questions to ask when getting a mortgage 

Mortgaging a tiny home 

While a tiny home may be a much more economical option than a single detached house, financing one can be tricky. Jessica Whelan, co-founder and director of Rewild Homes, a B.C.-based tiny home building company, says it’s tough to get a mortgage for a tiny home through a major Canadian bank.  

One reason is that lenders look for comparables, or similar properties, when considering a mortgage application (this makes them easier to sell in the event of a foreclosure) — and tiny homes are hard to categorize.  

“The term ‘tiny home’ is still a colloquialism,” Whelan says. “There’s no set standardization for what constitutes a tiny home. You see all sorts of different definitions depending on who you talk to.”  

Still, there are ways to get financing for a tiny home. Whelan says many of Rewild Homes’ clients do it through a line of credit or personal loan.  

There are, however, a few lenders willing to offer financing on tiny homes, like TinyLoans.ca and Purpose-Built Financing.  

Island Savings, a B.C. credit union, also offers tiny home financing, but not for DIY projects. Borrowers need to order a tiny home from a manufacturer in order to qualify.  

Certifying your tiny home as an RV to apply for a mortgage 

Another way to secure a mortgage on a tiny home is to certify it as an RV and then apply for an RV mortgage. Although, this approach can have problems for anyone considering a custom build. “It needs to be something that already exists,” Whelan explains, “as opposed to a custom tiny home that doesn’t exist yet.”  

Borrowers who want to go this route would need to pay around $10,000 for a third-party inspection agency, Whelan says, to inspect the custom tiny home at several different stages of its metamorphosis into an RV and ensure it meets all the right standards, like working taillights, water tanks, and turn signals — even if it never hits the road. 

Mortgaging a green home 

Green homes can run the spectrum from a conventional bungalow decked out in solar panels to a hyper-efficient sealed habitat built to the highest energy efficiency standards in Canada.  

Borrowers looking for their own custom build can look to a construction loan, sometimes known as a draw mortgage, for financing, but these often come with higher mortgage rates. 

However, in the early 2000s, some major Canadian banks like TD Canada and the Bank of Montreal debuted “green mortgage” options to incentivize the building and purchasing of eco-friendly properties with preferential mortgage rates.  

Desjardins also offers a savings initiative for borrowers looking to buy or build a green home. The bank provides up to $2,000 cashback to build a green home certified to LEED or the Ontario or Quebec energy efficiency standards. It also promises aspiring green homeowners the lowest Desjardin rates. 

There are also government programs like Canada Greener Homes Initiative and the Canada Municipal Housing Corporation (CMHC)’s Green Home program.  Both aim to promote energy efficiency in homes, but they offer different support. 

Canada Greener Homes Initiative: Provides grants of up to $5,000 to improve the energy efficiency of homes and reduce energy bills. It also offers interest free financing for Canadians to make their home more energy-efficient with home upgrades and renovations. 

CMHC’s Green Home Program: This program offers refunds on mortgage loan insurance premiums for homes built to specific energy efficiency standards. Homes built to the R–2000 standard, considered 50 per cent more efficient than a conventional home, are eligible for a 25 per cent refund.  

Homes built to provincial efficiency standards like Quebec’s Novoclimat 2.0, Efficiency Manitoba’s New Homes Program, or Ontario’s Greenhouse qualify for a 15% refund.  

In a span of the last three years, the Canada Greener Homes Grant has attracted applications from more than 500,000 Canadians. Ontario had the most applicants with approximately 227,500, followed by Quebec with around 85,600, Alberta with 70,600, British Columbia with 55,400, and New Brunswick with 20,800. 

Related: Solar panels and their impact on home insurance 

Mortgaging an off-the-grid log cabin 

Off-the-grid log cabins are a rustic alternative to life in a modern home or cottage, but they aren’t the easiest to mortgage.  

Typically, because they’re more difficult to sell in the event of foreclosure. However, a few lenders are willing to do so. Kawartha Credit Union, for instance, sees more requests for off-the-grid financing — likely because of its proximity to Ontario’s cottage country.  

Depending on a log cabin’s specifications, borrowers may be able to secure a cottage mortgage. There are two broad types of cottage properties:  

Type A: A fully winterized property in good condition accessible by a year-round access road.  

Type B: A structure that needs a full foundation, isn’t necessarily winterized, and doesn’t necessarily have year-round access.  

Anyone looking for a mortgage on a type A cabin wouldn’t need modern utilities to qualify — the cabin could even draw lake or well water — as long as the property is accessible and habitable all year round.  

Meanwhile, a type B cabin would include very isolated rural properties, including cottages on an island, and any other structures that don’t have year-round road access. An off-the-grid cabin could easily fall into either category. Lenders will treat cottages on a case-by-case basis. 

Related: How to find a good home insurance policy if you live in a wildfire zone 

How are interest rates calculated? 

Interest rates on cottage mortgages vary, but generally, are higher than a conventional home because they aren’t occupied year-round. (For this same reason, home insurance rates on cottages also tend to be higher.) 

As with all real estate decisions, financing an unconventional home comes down to more than the monthly interest payments.  

Insuring a tiny home or green home, managing energy rebates for an off-the-grid cabin run on solar panels, or just putting gas in the tank of an RV all add up.  

Finding mortgages for these less traditional style homes may not be easy, but it is possible if borrowers do their homework. 

Read next: Why aren’t there more green home insurance discounts? 

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