Fixed-Rate vs Variable-Rate Mortgages: Which Is Right For You?

By: Steven Liambas
November 10, 2022

Canadian interest rates are hovering near record highs compared to the last decade, making borrowing money significantly more expensive. Prospective homebuyers looking to take on mortgage debt face a difficult choice. Should they choose a variable-rate mortgage in the hopes that rates will fall, or lock in today before interest rates climb even further?

Know the Difference Between Fixed and Variable Mortgage Rates

With a fixed-rate mortgage, the interest rate remains the same for the entire duration of the loan. For example, in the case of a five-year fixed rate mortgage being offered at 4.79%, the borrower will continue to pay 4.79% for the full five-year term, at which point he or she will have to renew. This gives borrowers the peace of mind that their mortgage payments will not fluctuate, even if interest rates change. However, borrowers will have to renegotiate when it comes time to renew.

A variable-rate mortgage is one where the interest rate fluctuates along with the prime lending rate, which is the rate used by banks to set interest rates for various products. A variable-rate mortgage is usually expressed as the prime rate plus or minus a certain percentage amount—for example, prime minus 0.5%. That means that if the prime rate is 4.79%, the interest rate on the mortgage would be 4.29% (4.79% – 0.5% = 4.29%).

Historically, variable-rate mortgages tend to be cheaper than fixed-rate mortgages, but they’re also riskier. That’s because as the banks change their prime rates—which typically happens in lockstep with the Bank of Canada’s overnight lending rates—the interest rate on your variable-rate mortgage will also change.

If the rate increases, more of your payment will go towards the interest and less towards paying down the principal. And in some cases, your payment will also rise. If interest rates fall, the more of your payment will pay down the principal or your mortgage payment will decrease.

Which Rate Type is Better for Your Borrowing Needs?

To get an idea of what your mortgage payments will be with either a fixed-rate or variable-rate mortgage, you should use a mortgage payment calculator.

Fixed-rate mortgages are generally more popular, especially among first-time homebuyers, according to a year-end 2020 report issued by Mortgage Professionals Canada.

Its Annual State of the Residential Mortgage Market in Canada report found that 77% of mortgage holders have fixed-rate mortgages, while 18% have variable-rate mortgages. The remaining 5% have combination mortgages, where part of the payment is based on a fixed interest rate and part is based on a variable rate.

Comparing Fixed and Variable Mortgages

Here are a few things to consider when shopping around for the best mortgage rates and trying to decide which type of mortgage is right for you.

What Drives Mortgage Rates?

While variable-rate mortgages follow the prime rate, fixed-rate mortgages generally move in step with Government of Canada bond yields, plus a spread. Both prime lending rates and government bond yields are influenced by economic factors such as employment, manufacturing, exports, and inflation.

When inflation is high, the Bank of Canada will increase its overnight lending rate— which in turn will affect the bank’s prime lending rates—to cool down the economy and discourage spending. When inflation is low, the central bank will reduce interest rates in order to encourage borrowing and stimulate economic growth.

Keep this in mind when trying to determine which type of mortgage is right for you. If interest rates are expected to rise, it may be wise to lock at a low rate for a five-year term. If, however, there’s an expectation that rates may decrease, it may be worth the gamble of choosing a variable-rate mortgage that will allow you to benefit from any potential declines in interest rates.

RateHub.ca is a website that compares mortgage rates, credit cards, high-interest savings accounts, chequing accounts, and insurance with the goal to empower Canadians to search smarter and save money.

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