Mortgages

In March 2020, we were planning to come to Nova Scotia to go house-hunting ahead of our anticipated May or June 2020 move. Needless to say, our plans changed. Fortunately, we were still able to find a house (via FaceTime) and ended up moving just a bit later than planned (in July 2020). Because of this, though, we ended up buying a house (and getting a mortgage) without ever having set foot in it. We had visited the town that we settled in for about 4 hours in October of 2019, and that’s it.

It worked out great (we’ve been here 18 months and counting and we love it) but it certainly wasn’t what we’d planned. I’d like to share what I’ve learned about the differences between Canadian and American mortgages. And just to be clear — I’ve had one mortgage in each country, so there are undoubtedly some aspects of mortgages that I’m not familiar with. Please feel free to let me know about other differences, or ask questions, in the comments below.

Amortization Period

The amortization period is the length of time it would take to pay off a mortgage making just the regular payments. For American mortgages, this will be the same as the duration (or term) of the mortgage, but not for Canadian mortgages (more on that below). In the US, the most typical amortization period is 30 years, versus 25 years in Canada. Amortizations periods of 15 or 20 years are also common in the US. I’m not sure how common shorter amortization periods are in Canada, but I may be investigating this our mortgage matures in about 3.5 years.

Term / Duration

The term of a mortgage (Canada only) refers to how long the contract is good for. This contract specifies things like interest rate, prepayment terms, etc. In Canada, this is different from the amortization period. For example, we have a 5-year fixed rate mortgage here in Canada, amortized over 25 years. In other words, we’re locked into the current mortgage contract for the first 5 years, and then we’ll renegotiate when that matures. Typical terms in Canada are 5, 7 or 10 years. The good thing about these short terms is that you can typically get a very low interest rate with a 5-year term. The bad thing (obviously) is that this rate is just guaranteed for 5 years and could go up. We went with the 5-year because we wanted the lower rate and we didn’t want to lock ourselves into anything longer because of the limited prepayment terms.

Prepayment (aka open or closed mortgages)

In my experience in the US, you can typically prepay as much as you want, whenever you want. If you pay more than your required payment each month, it gets applied directly to the principle. And you can pay it off in full whenever you’d like without penalty.

In Canada, on the other hand, many mortgages are “closed”. That means there is a penalty for prepayment before the end of the mortgage term. In other words, if we were to pay our mortgage off before the 5 years is up (remembering that the amortization period is actually 25 years) we’d have to pay a penalty. This penalty is typically a percentage of the remaining interest in the mortgage term, interest that you’d be avoiding by paying it off early. There are also open mortgages that allow prepayment without penalty, but those typically have higher interest rates.

Closed mortgages typically allow some prepayment without penalty (ours allows 10% annually) but you can’t pay the whole thing off whenever you want. If you move before the mortgage matures, you typically wouldn’t have a penalty because the mortgages are portable (meaning you can apply it to your new house) but I imagine you could run into this problem if you left Canada. Our mortgage is closed. Honestly, that made me uncomfortable at first, but the short term and the very low interest rate (2.44%) helped allay my concerns.

Insurance

I’m not sure how typical this is, but our mortgage in Canada does NOT include our homeowners insurance payment. Perhaps there is some behind the scenes communication going on, but it isn’t clear to me how my bank guarantees that I have insurance. We found insurance ourselves, and paid for it ourselves, for the first year. Then we changed companies the second year. I notified the bank of all of this, but they weren’t particularly bothered by it. In the US (at least, in Florida) the bank made our insurance payments (so they knew we had insurance) and even dictated some coverage terms. In Canada, the bank just asked to be listed as the first payee. So our mortgage payment is just principal, interest and taxes in Canada, whereas in the US it has been principal, interest, taxes and insurance.

Conclusion

I don’t have a strong preference for one mortgage situation or the other. I was initially put off by the “closed” nature of Canadian mortgages, but because I’m not a monthly prepayer I don’t really mind. Our plan is to see how things are doing in 3.5 years and possibly pay off our mortgage then. We’ll owe ~$175K Canadian at that point. If the market is up (in other words, if we aren’t in the midst of a correction), I suspect we’ll just pay it off from a combination of our cash on hand, some I-Bonds, and some of our taxable account. On the other hand, if the market is down and the interest rates are low, we’ll probably just get another 5-year mortgage, likely having invested our cash on hand when the market fell. If interest rates are high, though, and the market is down, I think we’ll pay off a chunk, using whatever cash on hand we have (and probably the I-Bonds as well) but leaving our taxable account alone. I love the idea of not having a mortgage in early retirement, but I’m not wedded to it.

Are there any other differences that you’re aware of between Canadian and US mortgages? Are there any questions that you have?

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