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This is the question that I get most asked: Should I go with a fixed or variable mortgage?

In the past, when the spread between the variable and fixed rates were way farther apart, it was an easy answer, as long as the client didn’t mind their monthly payments fluctuating. I would always answer: Go with the variable.

This was because, historically, the variable has saved homeowners money more than 85% of the time. However, times have changed and the spread between the variable and fixed rates has become a lot closer, since banks are not discounting the variable rates as much,  the best variable now is prime – 0.35%, that equates to 2.65%. The best fixed rate right now for a five year term is 3.29%. The spreads have come closer primarily because banks are losing money on the variable side and are trying to direct borrowers to the fixed side with lower spreads.

So back to the question: Should I go with the variable or fixed mortgage?

With the fixed rate mortgage, homeowners lock in their mortgage for a period of time, the most popular being the five year fixed-rate mortgage. Since rates can arguably only go up from the rates we are at, it seems like a logical decision to go with a fixed mortgage.

The difference between today’s variable rate, which is 2.65% and the four year fixed, 2.99%, is a difference of 34 basis points or just over one rate hike.

This is a small difference to have the security knowing that you won’t have to pay more if rates were to rise.

Moshe Milevsky, professor at York University and an author of mortgage studies says that the savings that one may get from variable rates in the future will be a lot lower then what was once enjoyed.

However, a person’s circumstances should dictate if they should go with a fixed or variable mortgage. If a person can take on the fluctuation of monthly payments, then the variable is ok for them.

One must remember that a mortgage is only one piece of a person’s total financial plan.

However, if you are still struggling to decide which mortgage is right for you, these are the top considerations to think about:

1.     Your Financials

Since variable – rate mortgages take on more risk, a person needs to know whether they are able to take on a fluctuating variable – rate mortgage. A person’s income should be stable, their debt should be low, a person’s sensitivity to risk should be low, and any assets a person has, are able to be turned into cash if cash flow tightens.

2.     Spreads

This is the difference between the variable – rate mortgage and the fixed rate mortgage. When this difference tightens, the variable losses some advantage. When the spread is less than one percentage point and the economy is at the bottom of an economic cycle, like we are now, the fixed has a higher probability of outperforming. Today’s spread between a five year fixed and a variable mortgage is half a percentage point. Based on this, a fixed is likely to outperform.

3.     Breaking Your Mortgage Early

One bank study pegged the duration of a five year mortgage is 3.3 years. This is because people break their five year mortgage early to refinance, sell, divorce, or just change to a mortgage with a better rate. Penalties on variables tend to be less, only three months interest, compared to breaking a fixed rate mortgage. Penalties for breaking the fixed rate can be a lot more expensive because of lenders interest rate differential penalties. If there is a chance you will break your mortgage, a variable may cost you less.

4.     Flexibility

Variables give you the option of changing your mind and locking into a fixed rate option. However, a lender’s rate to convert is about a fifth to a half a percentage point above its best fixed rate.

5.     Alternatives

The five year fixed and the variable mortgages are not the only options; look at shorter fixed terms. Today, you can find a two year fixed rate at 2.49%, where most variables are at 2.7% - 2.90%. You can diversify risk by using a hybrid mortgage. This is part fixed and part variable.

6.     Knowing Your Rate

There is comfort to know what your monthly payments will be from month to month. Variable rate borrowers don’t have this comfort and may have to tolerate some anxiety if rates start to rise.

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