5 mortgage-switch surprises to avoid


Switching your mortgage can save you thousands—but it’s important to pick an offer that doesn’t reduce that benefit by hitting you with higher fees and other unexpected costs.

5 mortgage-switch surprises to avoid

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These days, being a homeowner with a mortgage can feel a bit like you’ve ordered the chicken dinner before realizing there was a steak special. In fact, there’s a buffet of mortgage choices and, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the offers may get even better, thanks to Government of Canada 5-year “bond rates dropping to levels experienced in 2014” and creating “a low mortgage rate environment” in 2020.

If you’re thinking about shopping around for a cheaper mortgage, it’s important to understand the fine print before you make a move, or you could be surprised by fees and service changes that make your new and “better” home loan much less of a deal. Here are five important things to consider before you switch.

1. Watch out for fees

Leaving your current mortgage before the end of your term usually triggers a host of fees. Ask your existing lender for a list of all the costs you could be dinged with if you leave, and ask any new lenders you’re considering about fees that would apply to your new mortgage. Here’s a quick checklist:

  • Interest penalty. If your mortgage isn’t up for renewal or isn’t in an open term, your existing bank will likely charge an interest penalty for you to switch. The amount is usually three months worth of interest payments, or the difference between the interest rate on your current mortgage and your lender’s current rate for the amount of time that’s left in your mortgage term. (The latter is called the interest rate differential, or IRD.) To entice you to make the switch, your new prospective lender may offer “switch incentive” funds you can use to offset interest penalties, so ask if that’s an option when you’re shopping new lenders. Keep in mind, though, that adding an interest penalty to your new mortgage balance means paying interest on that interest penalty, while paying penalties from your savings equates to losing the potential return you’d earn on that amount. A financial planner can help you factor in all these details and calculate whether you’ll lose or gain overall by paying an interest penalty to get out of your mortgage. It’s rarely worth paying the penalty unless your existing rate is much higher than the new rate you’re being offered. 
  • Appraisal. Ask your new lender to cover the cost of having your property’s value assessed.
  • Legal or title fees. Mortgages require legal paperwork and lenders hire companies to do it for them, but often charge the cost to you. There are different kinds of legal mortgages, each with its own different fee. Know what kind of mortgage you currently have (usually a conventional first charge or a collateral charge), so you’re quoted accurate legal fees and can negotiate if you think the fees are off. 
  • Discharge Fee. This is an administrative/legal service fee from the lender you’re leaving to remove their lien (mortgage charge) against your property. Ashley Mandaric, an RBC mortgage specialist for 10 years, confirms, “Every bank or lender charges a discharge service fee. Find out how much your current lender charges and ask up front if that’s covered by the new lender.” 
  • Property tax administration fee. Some lenders charge service fees to administer payment of your property taxes through them. To avoid this fee on your new mortgage, ask to pay property taxes on your own.

2. Don’t pay more for your banking services

Sometimes financial institutions offer mortgage rate deals if you move some or all of your other banking products to them. Compare all the fees and rates on every product included before you agree to do so. Negotiate the best deal for each account and don’t switch anything that’s not to your benefit. 

3. Don’t sacrifice customer service

We all want to feel respected for our time and business, so warm and friendly employees who know their stuff and return your messages promptly can be the deciding factor among multiple lenders offering the same rate. Mortgage specialist Mandaric, for example, gives potential clients her cell number and swiftly returns calls or texts, sometimes even during non-business hours. If you’re not getting great service during initial interactions, it’s unlikely a lender’s service will improve once they have your business. 

4. Changes to your finances or health could impact your qualifications

Life happens and if changes like having a baby, divorce or switching jobs have occurred, your income or debt load may have also changed, impacting your ability to qualify for a mortgage—so it’s important to investigate what your new options truly are if you’re thinking about switching. “Consumers may no longer fit in traditional lending spaces if their circumstances have changed. A gap in employment, income, debt load, credit history or property value can affect qualifications,” advises Samantha Brookes, CEO of Mortgages Canada. In other words, your personal circumstances may not allow you to snag that same discounted rate your neighbour’s been bragging about. Be honest in your application and a good lender will do everything they can to help you qualify. 

Similarly, if you have mortgage (or line of credit/credit card) insurance through your bank, that insurance will end when you switch. But you’ll want to continue to have enough coverage so that your debts don’t become a burden to your surviving family members should you pass away. Know that minor changes to your health or simply getting older can affect your ability to obtain mortgage insurance with a new lender, so read the new lender’s insurance certificates about pre-existing conditions that might exempt you. Ask the new lender to apply for the mortgage insurance you want at the same time you do your initial credit application to ensure you’re approved before proceeding to switch. If you don’t qualify with the new lender’s insurance provider, you can still seek insurance with a different insurance company before switching. Many financial planners will argue that it’s better to have term life insurance to cover your mortgage and other debts, since lender-provided insurance offers a decreasing payout (the amount you owe decreases over time, so your coverage amount decreases, too, while term life insurance coverage does not change throughout the term you’ve signed up for). 

5. You’ll need a buffer

During the switch process, you will likely have to sign a temporary renewal with your existing bank for an open term and even pay a new payment amount once or twice until all the legal and financial paperwork for your new mortgage is completed. Sometimes, glitches occur.

Mike Schmidt of Victoria, BC can attest to this. 

“I had a $45 NSF fee due to my old lender trying to take out a larger payment than usual without advance warning,” Schmidt recalls. “The new bank finally paid off my original mortgage nine days after the maturity date. I calculated this as costing me an additional $13 per day, versus my old daily interest amount on the previous mortgage.” 

Switching your mortgage may seem intimidating with so many considerations, but you can lessen your stress by starting to shop for a new lender up to 90 days before your renewal date and beginning the paperwork about 30 days prior to your mortgage maturity date. Have all your current mortgage and banking information available along with verification of all your income sources, and don’t be shy to ask questions up front to help you avoid misunderstandings, and make fully-informed decisions about your money. 

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