Qualifying for a house mortgage in the Okanagan is becoming more financially inaccessible to many local area residents. Photo Credit: Contributed

Mortgage qualification squeeze getting tighter

Rule changes, interest rate hike make it more difficult to buy a house in Okanagan.

Efforts to control rising housing prices in Vancouver and Toronto are having an adverse effect on the Okanagan housing market, according to two local mortgage brokers.

Romany Runnalls, a mortgage broker/owner in Kelowna, says mortgage qualification rule changes have sidelined first-time home buyers from entering the market, placing what she calls horrific added pressure on an already vacancy-strapped rental housing market.

“I believe this is a critical, unforeseen result of the mortgage rule changes,” Runnalls said. “A large pool of buyers who would have been entering the market for the first time and realizing the benefits of home ownership have been squeezed out.”

Runnalls said changes put in place to address the home ownership debt load residents in Vancouver and Toronto are absorbing “is not fair to the rest of the country.”

She said the first step was toughening the mortgage lending rules last November for those unable to raise a minimum 20 per cent down payment.

Then came the rise of interest rates twice already this year with still further increases anticipated, according to many economists.

A stronger than expected economy this year prompted the Bank of Canada to raise its key interest rate this week by another quarter of a percentage point, up to one per cent from .75 per cent, following an initial hike earlier this summer.

Lower interest rates are implemented to stimulate the economy, while higher rates are intended to have a cooling effect on growth to keep inflation in check.

Adding to that is pending new mortgage rules that will impact the 20 per cent plus down payment buyers, downgrading the importance of built-up equity in a home if you can’t qualify for the mortgage payment restrictions.

“It used to be all about getting that down payment together, however you could do it, to qualify for a mortgage,” said Trish Balaberde, a Kelowna mortgage broker.

“But this summer we have seen a lot of deals fall apart because they don’t qualify for the mortgage payments and that is only going to now be more difficult.”

Balaberde says the new rules are complicated, but essentially all mortgage applicants will have to adhere to the same financial stress test of having a debt-income ratio two per cent above the mortgage rate being offered.

“This will apply to fixed and variable mortgages,” she said. “For many people who barely qualify for the rate being offered, being required to meet that additional burden could eliminate their chance to buy a home.”

Balaberde says the rule changes are meant to both address the high debt ratio that Canadian home-buyers are carrying, reduce the risk of mass mortgage defaults if the real estate market takes a plunge, and also to cool down what, in Toronto and Vancouver, have been red-hot housing markets.

Runnalls said while Toronto’s market has cooled off, that hasn’t been the case in Vancouver.

The result has been Okanagan prices not dropping either in large part due to Lower Mainland home buyers selling out to move here or seek house investment opportunities.

But she said if housing prices don’t decline with stricter mortgage qualification rules being imposed, then the housing market will be closed off to an increasing number of people.

“So people who already own and are well-established in the market have gained enormous equity with the improved economic conditions and are able to scoop up many lower priced properties that new homeowners would have qualified for last year,” Runnalls said.

She said the trickle-down effect is that those least able to afford home ownership are being forced out of rental properties by “ruthless landlords” who see an opportunity to hike up rents and force families out in favour of higher-paying tenants.

“You can’t imagine how difficult it is for many families with kids and pets being evicted with absolutely no where else to turn,” she said.

“I’m hoping the (federal) Liberals have an end game in mind here but I’m not sure at this point what that looks like. All it seems to be doing is hurting the people in the middle and lower income class they say they’re trying to assist with home ownership.”

Balaberde described the current rental market in the Central Okanagan as “frightening” because of the scarcity of options available coupled with rising rental rates.

“When you have to qualify at two per cent higher than what will be charged, that is a big jump for a lot of people,” Balaberde said, acknowledging that the job for people in her profession to find deals for home buyers and lenders is going to be more complicated.

Runnalls sent a letter to Kelowna council and other politicians complaining about the negative impact of the mortgage qualification changes, saying she heard back “almost immediately” from MP Dan Albas, who has invited Runnalls to participate in a roundtable economy discussion this fall.

She was also to meet with local MLA Steve Thomson this week.

She’s said the mortgage brokers association met with officials in Ottawa earlier this year to offer suggestions on changing the new mortgage rule qualification changes to no avail.

“We pleaded and asked the government to push the pause button on this, but our message seems to have fallen on deaf ears for the moment,” she said.