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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!

Recovering Canceled Travel Costs During COVID-19

This year travel came with all the stress and none of the excitement. For many, it meant cancelled trips, leaving most feeling disappointed, concerned and wondering about refunds. After months of planning your dream vacation or weekend getaway, you are now having to spend months scrambling to recoup costs. Here’s some of the best ways – and how to make the most of staying home!


Cancelling a trip due to COVID-19

Let’s be honest, 2020 hasn’t gone as planned for anyone. Especially those who finally saved enough in their piggy banks to take their dream trip. Unless you were lucky enough to travel in January or February,  you’ve spent 2020 cancelling travel plans and refreshing refund policy web pages for updates on how you will recoup your costs. I was a part of the group who were hopeful for a travel resurgence in the Fall and Winter seasons who are now realizing our trips are suffering the same fate as those who booked in the first half of the year.

Travel is exciting and fun but it can also be stressful and a lot of work to plan but typically it is always worth the work. *sighs* But when you throw in a global pandemic, now the time you took to plan the perfect getaway is being rewarded with more work to undo it with the hopes of losing the least amount of money as possible. Navigating refunds from travel plans you’ve spent months assembling can be overwhelming and tough. Here’s what I’ve learned is the best way to recoup these costs:

Flights & Accommodations

For the travel and hospitality industry, COVID-19 has posed as a huge threat. Many flight and travel companies are having to rethink and change their policies to accommodate the safety of their guests and staff, but also the influx in cancellations. Travel service providers, hotels and rental companies worked quickly to address the impacts of COVID-19, posting information and making updates as new information was communicated. Luckily, most made the right decision to shift to more relaxed and flexible refund policies.

With so much information being shared it can be overwhelming. A resource that I found particularly helpful was this article that outlines the  current policies for major airlines, hotels and rental companies.

Another great place to start is to review your travel insurance, if you had any, the terms and conditions of your booking and refund policies. This will help you understand if you need to talk to someone or if you can easily cancel online. If you are having issues finding this information in your booking documents, visit the company’s website. Most companies have created a “COVID-19 Updates” page on their website, making it easy to find the information you need. Finally, if all else fails, pick up the phone and call them. They’ll be able to bring up your information and communicate their refund policies. Plus, many times these agents will be trained to offer exceptions, personalized solutions and even future discounts in order to rectify a situation so sometimes it pays to talk to someone directly.

Tickets

I’m guessing that if you booked an expensive getaway, you likely had some things planned in your destination. Whether it is sports games, concert tickets, art shows and all things in between – most of these attractions would have been purchased in advance. If it’s a concert, you might get lucky as many artists are just postponing shows to the following year instead of cancelling. However, if it’s a sports event or show it might look a little different.  Here are some of the most common ticket sale channels and how to recoup costs:

  1. StubHub
  2. Ticketmaster
  3. Vivid Seats

If you booked tickets outside of these services or you didn’t find any luck through these resources – give them a call. Like I mentioned before, many service providers understand the threat of substitutes in their industry and any unsatisfied customer is a risk to the main thing that keeps them afloat: their reputation. Pick up the phone and explain your situation to them – chances are they will work with you to ensure you leave the conversation satisfied.

Staycation anyone?

Although it hasn’t felt like anything good can come from 2020, life is what you make it! I’m sure you just rolled your eyes a little bit, but I mean it. I once heard that if you want to make progress, you need to create an uncomfortable environment. I don’t know about you, but 2020 has made me pretty uncomfortable. So let’s lean into it and make the best of what life has thrown our way. You know what they say, when life gives you a global pandemic and takes away your dream vacation, make lemonade by turning it into a Saskatchewan Staycation!

Staycation

This new normal has provided perspective and has shown us – it’s okay to slow down.

So, use your vacation days and take some much needed R&R to yourself. Sleep in, read a good book, binge watch that Netflix show, order in from your favourite local spot and truly disconnect from the chaos of the world. If this is exactly what you did during quarantine and your house is feeling like a prison – this is a great opportunity to explore Saskatchewan.

Travel within Saskatchewan 

Saskatchewan is often overlooked because we’re small and don’t have the mountains. As someone who is born and raised in Regina, I even find myself overlooking my own province – thinking ‘I’ve seen it all’ or going back to the same spots because they are familiar.

When we travel, something takes over and we are more open to trying new things and exploring, so I challenge you to take that challenge and go explore the province! I dare you to reacquaint yourself with those little forgotten gems or find somewhere new. Last summer we posted a MONEYTALK blog that helps you travel Saskatchewan on a budget. Just because travel is restricted doesn’t mean you are fenced in to your own backyard.

When you travel within Saskatchewan, you aren’t just exploring something new, you are also helping to fuel our economy. COVID-19 has had major impacts on our economy, by staying and travelling in our own province, you are helping to improve this.

Here are some other great resources on recouping costs and travel information:

What to know about credit card chargebacks

Government of Canada: Travel and Tourism

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.

How to Support Local in Saskatchewan Without Breaking Your Bank

Now more than ever, our local Saskatchewan businesses need our support. It’s no question COVID-19 has impacted each and every person in Saskatchewan and across the world, but this rings especially true for small business. Here are some of the ways you can support local without breaking the bank. Big or small, together our actions can have a tremendous impact. 


The Impacts of COVID-19

As humans, we are creatures of habit. For some, this rings truer than others – I am one of these creatures. Whether it’s that one restaurant you love and always order from because you know the meal is always good or the grocery store you stop at every Sunday because it’s closest to your house. We all have habits, we may not even realize it. More often than not, these restaurants, stores or businesses aren’t local.

We crave routine and when we find something that works or is comfortable it becomes difficult to break that habit. But I’m challenging you to break it!

In Saskatchewan, small businesses account for 98% of businesses in our province, major contributors to the quality of life we all enjoy. Right now, these businesses need our support – COVID-19 has impacted us all in major ways, but it has hit our small businesses especially hard. However, shopping local can sometimes mean needing to spend a little more, and while we move through this uncertain time in our lives, it might mean less income for families and individuals. Between March and April, Statistics Canada reported almost 53,000 job losses in Saskatchewan. While we need to continue to stimulate the economy, we also need to ensure that we are able to care for ourselves, put food on the tables, and pay our bills.

It typically takes a minimum 21 days to break a habit, here are some ways you can start right now, without breaking the bank:

“Where do I even begin?”

When individuals start supporting local there are many benefits. For one, it helps stimulate the economy by allowing money to be cycled back into your community, not only through your purchase, but through these businesses supporting local non-profits, charities and community events.

However, in order to support local, you need to know what is local! Here are some great resources to find what is local in your community:

Shop Local

One of the easiest ways to support local, is to shop local.

In Saskatchewan we have an amazing local community and your options to choose from are truly endless. From grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants, sporting goods, and garden centers – our small businesses have it all.  Here are some ways you can shop local without breaking the bank:

  1. Buy gift cards from local stores for birthdays, anniversaries, graduation gifts, etc.
  2. Eat local. Once a month choose a different restaurant to support and order from them
  3. Grocery shop from a local store or farmers market. There is nothing better than fresh produce, especially in the summer
  4. Choose a local shop, this could be a garden center, fitness store or facility, clothing store, etc. to buy from once a month
  5. Going for ice cream? Instead of grabbing a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, find a local ice cream store

Your purchases don’t have to be large or frequent, but if we all come together and contribute in small ways – the impact can mean something big.

Word of Mouth

Supporting local is more than just shopping local. It means enjoying, recommending and sharing your experiences with others.

Right now you maybe can’t afford to shop local, and that’s okay – there are other ways you can show your support. You may have shopped at a local grocery store in the past or had that favourite lunch spot you went to once a month with co-workers. Word of mouth can be a powerful tool – AND it doesn’t cost anything. Here are some ways you can start flexing your influential muscles:

  1. Utilize social media. What businesses do you recommend? What was your experience? What did you love about the product or service they offered? Whether it is posting on your personal social media platforms or sharing your favorite spots in public groups dedicated to supporting local restaurants during the pandemic like this one, your endorsement will likely spark the interest of someone else to try your favorite.
  2. Leave a positive review on google or other platforms. I don’t know about you, but I often check out the reviews section, especially when I’m buying from somewhere new. I like knowing what other people have experienced.
  3. Promote the different ways you’ve seen businesses in your community pivot and adapt in the face of COVID-19. It’s amazing to see how resilient businesses have been in the face of adversity. From launching online stores to donating their profits, they all deserve a shout out.

Donate to a local non-profit or charity

COVID-19 has effected nearly everyone – this rings especially true for more vulnerable populations who have lost access to critical services in our communities. Services such as food supply and housing, but also access to wireless services for students now learning from home or individuals working from home. There are so many amazing organizations across Saskatchewan that exist to support individuals with these areas that are looking for your donations in order to get them through these uncertain times.

“Donations” doesn’t always have to mean money, either. Non-profit and charities are often looking for items of clothing, non-perishable food or books. If you’re anything like me, your closet is full of items you’ve been holding on to you for years for that “one occasion” that never seems to roll around.

Here are some other ideas of items you could donate to shelters, food banks, non-profits, or charitable organizations:

  • Clothing, shoes or bags
  • Old electronic devices, such as laptops, iPad, or phones
  • Food, including baby food
  • Blankets
  • Women’s hygiene products
  • Diapers
  • Books
  • Old school supplies

The next time you are going out for your next purchase, pause and ask yourself, can I buy this from a local store? When you shop local, that money stays local and is reinvested back into the community you live. But remember, support can be shown in many ways and doesn’t only mean purchasing goods and services. Challenge yourself to donate, share word of mouth and educate yourself of what’s local in your community. As a community we are stronger together and that starts with supporting one another.