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What I Learned From Buying a House During COVID-19

Sorry, Dorothy – repeating “there’s no place like home” will not wake you up from the nightmare that 2020 has trapped us in BUT there may be no time like the present to look into buying a new home during a global pandemic. After years of saving (and with a lot of help from our 2020 trip budget), my husband and I were able to buy our first house together. If you are wondering what it is like to house hunt during a worldwide virus outbreak – it was a different experience but one that I am happy I did and learned a lot from. This is what I learned from buying a house during COVID-19.


The Search

When you start getting serious about looking for a house, you start thinking about your criteria. How many bedrooms do you want? What end of the city do you want to live? To reno or not to reno? For us, our dream home originally came complete with an open concept, finished basement and a garage, but quarantine caused us to move some other things up in priority. For example, a home office became suddenly mandatory after I spent months hunched over on a wooden seat at the island in my kitchen. My point is, a few things changed, but it is important to assess what are your must-haves and what has some wiggle room to change.

We had to be very selective when physically viewing houses for a couple reasons. For starters, open house viewings were now a thing of the past so we had to book an appointment to be able to visit. Second, there were procedures put in place to make the experience of buying a home during COVID-19 safe for both us house hunters and the home owners. For example:

  • Prior to entering, we had to participate in a questionnaire to consent that we did not have any symptoms and have not traveled within the past 14 days
  • Out of respect and safety for the home owners, we were told to touch minimal things and whatever we did touch was disinfected afterwards
  • We made sure to keep our 6 feet distance from our realtor, which is hard to do when viewing a house

If anything, these procedures made us feel that both sides were being respected, provided a safe environment and really didn’t add that much more time. It did however, encourage us to really make the most of our time at each location and be very intentional and thorough to decide if this home was an option for us. Overall, it was different – but we found our home!

The Payment

COVID-19 or no COVID-19, figuring out your financing is a big component when you’re making one of the most expensive purchases of your life. You need to know how much you can comfortably afford with your mortgage and bills all factored in, furnishing your new home, plus, you’ve got to eat! For us, as big travelers in a travel ban world, we were able to reallocate our savings for trips for this year into furnishing our home. My advice would be to review what has changed in your finances or savings during COVID-19 and how that will adjust going forward – there is no shame in changing up your plans!

One very important bonus right now for those looking to buy a new home is that the interest rates are low. That’s great news for buyers as the cost of borrowing is much lower so you’ll pay a lot less in the long run. Now more than ever, it is incredibly important to shop around before locking in your lender and the terms of your mortgage. This rate finder tool from Rate Hub gives you a one-stop shop to compare mortgage rates from the Big Banks. But don’t just choose one from there, make sure to shop around via other options like your local credit union or the financial institution you work with for your day-to-day banking. Your financial advisor will be able to work with you to find a mortgage that fits your overall financial well-being and some may even offer lower rates altogether.

Here’s a hot tip for buying a house during COVID-19 that I learned from my realtor: when chatting with your financial institution, be sure to ask what they offer for an interest rate guarantee. An interest rate guarantee or mortgage rate hold, is locking in a specific rate for a certain number of days, so you will be guaranteed that rate even if they go up during your house hunting journey. This is important right now because as the market recovers from COVID-19, the interest rate will continue to rise back up so placing a hold on these low rates will buy you some time to make sure you are being thorough in your house search.

Even if the mortgage rate goes down, some financial institutions will honor the decreased rate. I will admit, I had a mini celebration each time I saw the rate drop before we officially signed our documents. For more helpful tidbits on mortgages during COVID-19, visit this blog we published earlier this month on how COVID-19 affects the renewal of your mortgage.

The Closure

Closing costs and the process it takes can be the most frustrating part of purchasing a home. Although, I wish it was under different circumstances, some of these processes have become quite efficient during COVID-19. Typically, once you are ready to sign on the dotted line – you end up having to do that many times and over many appointments across the city. Because of COVID-19, we were able to sign almost everything digitally including realtor agreements, mortgage documents, insurance and even signing the offer. There were some signatures needed in person with our lawyer but with the new procedures in place – it was quick, easy and safe!

Buying a house during COVID-19 maybe wasn’t the norm, but I was happy with the process and found it much more streamlined. It has been super exciting and has been a source of light in an otherwise dark time. Now we can reminisce on the Facetime bloopers with our realtor and cheers to building back up that trip fund over a distanced drink on our patio!

How does COVID-19 affect how you renew your mortgage?

COVID-19 has changed the way we do many things and renewing your mortgage during this time is no different. Thankfully, if you have a good relationship with your lender, the process is relatively seamless and easy to do while practicing social distancing.


Renewing your Mortgage during COVID-19

By law, lenders must give you 21 days’ notice of renewal before the term of your mortgage is up, but if you would like to plan ahead like I do, you should start thinking about the renewal process 120 days before that renewal date. Most lenders will send you their best offer 30 days before the renewal date but starting early gives you some time to really determine what might work best for you and your family. Whether you are looking for a quick renewal of your current mortgage or you are interested in shopping around for the best rate – there are a few things you should keep in mind to set you up for the next 1-5-10 years of home ownership.

How does money affect the mortgage?

If COVID-19 has had an impact on you financially, it might be time to re-visit your household budget. If you took your mortgage over a 5-year term, a lot can change in that time so you should know what kind of flexibility you have in your monthly finances. Some things to consider:

  • What are your financial goals? For a lot of families, COVID-19 has increased the importance of setting up emergency savings. Keeping your mortgage payments small might help you set up that emergency savings in case of another pandemic or job disruption. If retirement is on the horizon and your investments fell during this time, it might be possible to increase your payments while you’re still working. This will allow you to pay the mortgage off faster so that you are mortgage free once you are on a fixed income.
  • Have you received a sum of money such as bonus or inheritance? Consider applying that to your mortgage principle at the same time. Not only could this reduce your payment, but this pays your mortgage off faster and saves you interest. The tricky part is not convincing yourself that this new windfall gain should be spent on a new vacation!
  • Are there some renovations or home improvements that you’ve got the time to accomplish? You could consider increasing the amount you renew your mortgage for to cover the costs of the shingles or finally heating your garage.

Choose the correct term length for you

One of the biggest considerations is the term of your mortgage. Mortgage terms can vary from 1-10 years with the average being 5 years. If you think that you might want to sell your house in the next 5 years, taking your mortgage over a shorter term will help you avoid any costly early-payout penalties from your lender.

Adjusting your payment frequency to match your financial situation is also a change you may want to consider. Bi-weekly payments that match your pay schedule can pay off your mortgage sooner and decreases the amount of interest that you pay in the long run. A monthly payment may make it easier for you to budget during the month. Each option is unique to you and what makes the most sense for your budget.

How COVID-19 has affected interest rates

If there is a bright side of COVID-19, interest rates have fallen significantly since March, making it a great time to renew your mortgage with a low interest rate. The Bank of Canada’s overnight rate is 1.75%*, allowing lenders to offer mortgages just above Prime at 2.89%* for a 5-year fixed rate mortgage.(as of June 9, 2020. Interest rates are based off of your credit score and may vary).

There are traditionally two types of interest rates, fixed and variable and what works best for you is largely based on your own situation:

Fixed: Most borrowers like the idea of having a fixed mortgage rate to limit any surprises in their budget. Especially if you are recovering from job disruption due to COVID-19, a fixed rate is probably your best option.

Variable: Variable rates are attractive because they are often lower than fixed rate mortgages. A variable rate is usually stable, but it is based off the Prime Rate. If the Bank of Canada increases the overnight rate, it pushes the prime rate up, thus increasing variable rates. If your budget can accommodate some flexibility, choosing a variable rate can save you some money over time.

Try shopping around

If you aren’t happy with your current lender, or see a low rate at another bank, renewing your mortgage is an opportunity to shop around. However, COVID-19 has impacted lives in many ways, so be sure to consider your personal situation before making the switch.

If you haven’t applied for a mortgage since October 2018, you are now required to pass the mortgage stress test when applying for a new mortgage or switching lenders. The stress test ensures that borrowers can afford the mortgage that they are applying for by qualifying them at a higher interest rate. The good news is, the Bank of Canada reduced the greater qualifying rate from 5.04% to 4.94% making it easier to qualify for financing. The greater qualifying rate is only to ensure that you can afford your mortgage, the interest rate you will pay are usually lower than this.

If you are considering switching lenders, there may also be some penalties that you have to pay to move your mortgage. Switching within the 120-day window should avoid early payout penalties. Some other fees to consider are appraisal fees, set-up fees for transferring your mortgage and other administration fees. Part of the power of shopping around is that you can ask for these fees to be covered from your new lender which will save you some cash.

How COVID-19 has affected mortgage applications

The pandemic has changed the way that lenders review applications and could make it harder to access funding when renewing your mortgage. Lenders are reviewing any applications under a microscope so it is important to have your documents in order prior to applying for financing. Income statements, business plans for self-employed applicants and personal net worth statements are some of the documentation that may be required.

If you’ve had to defer payments due to COVID-19, you may have to catch up on those payments before being able to switch lenders. This could come at a major one-time cost so be sure to talk to your current lender about what that cost may be.

Finally, the #1 thing that you can do to set yourself up for success while renewing your mortgage during COVID-19 is to reach out to your Financial Advisor. They can complete a review of your finances and your unique situation in order to give you advice on what the best route is for you.