Our First-Time Home Buyer's Guide
A resource for Canadians buying their very first home. We’ve got you covered from the open house to closing the deal.
Are You a First-Time Home Buyer in Canada?
Should I rent or buy?
You’re finally ready to forgo those monthly rent cheques for something you can call your own – not to mention build some real equity. Taking the leap of faith into homeownership for the first time can be exciting, but it’s important to look before you leap. There is a lot to consider when buying property – things you wouldn’t even think of when renting. Here are the pros and cons of owning versus renting a home
Pros and Cons: Renting vs. Owning
|Owning PROS||Owning CONS|
|Renting PROS||Renting CONS|
What can I afford?
Don’t make the biggest mistake a first-time home buyers can make - buying a home they cannot afford. A home is more than just the sale price. So how do you know how much to budget?
When lenders are determining if you can afford your brand new abode, they generally use two different debt ratios to calculate how much of a mortgage you can handle: Gross Debt Service Ratio (GDS), and Total Debt Service Ratio (TDS).
GDS refers to the percentage of the borrower's income needed to cover all ongoing housing costs like:
- Real estate taxes
- Home insurance
- Heating costs
- Condo fees (if applicable)
- Second mortgage payments (if applicable)
Similarly, TDS is the percentage of the borrower's income needed to cover all housing costs in addition to other regular payment and consumer debt obligations the borrower may have like:
- Living expenses (includes all expenses listed under GDS)
- Car payments
- Credit card debt
- Student loan debt
- Personal loan payments
- Payments on installment loans (for appliances, etc.)
Your GDS should not exceed 32 % of your income. Your TDS should not exceed 40 % of you income.
How much can you afford? Find out with our mortgage affordability calculator »
Understanding Mortgages: What do I need to know?
The down payment is the difference between the property's purchase price and the amount financed through a mortgage. Most often, the difference is paid in cash. Most people take years to save up for their down payment before even beginning the house hunting process.
A down payment is usually 5% – 25% of the home's purchase price. By law, it cannot be less than 5% of the property purchase price.
Need help saving for your down payment? Try a tax-free savings account! TFSAs are a great option for those who want easy access to their money in a tax-sheltered savings account. Unlike other types of registered savings accounts, if something comes up, you can withdraw funds quickly with no repercussions. You can even further invest your funds into a low-risk investment like a GIC within your TFSA to give your savings a boost.
For down payments under 20%, your lender will require you to purchase mortgage default insurance, which is available through the Crown corporation CMHC or private insurers Genworth and Canada Guaranty. Mortgage default insurance protects lenders, in the event a borrower ever stopped making payments and can no longer make their mortgage payments.
New mortgage applicants will also need to pass a stress test to determine if they can still afford mortgage payments if rates were to ever increase. Under the stress test, applicants must be able to afford the greater of two options: either the conventional mortgage rate (the five-year rate published by the Bank of Canada – which is currently 4.99 %), or the contractual mortgage rate plus two percentage points.
The stress test used to only apply to those with less than a 20% down payment. However, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions Canada (OSFI) ruled that effective January 2018, all applicants be put through the new stress test, regardless of down payment and whether they’re shopping for a variable or fixed rate.
The mortgage term is the set amount of time a lender will loan you money for your mortgage at a specific interest rate. A mortgage term can last anywhere from 6 months to 25 years, but 5-year terms are the most popular.
At the end of your term, you generally have two options: you either pay off the balance of your mortgage loan in entirety, or (most likely) you need to renew your mortgage so you are, once again, put on a payment plan to pay off your loan. Renewing your mortgage is a good time to shop around for a better or lower rate or product from another lender. You are not required to stay with the same lender once your term is done.
The amortization period is the amount of time it will take to repay your mortgage in full. The amortization period is based on your monthly payment amount at the current interest rate, and depends on the frequency of payments. In Canada, you can choose mortgage amortization periods up to 25 years for CMHC-backed mortgages, and up to 30 years for conventional mortgages.
If you’re a first-time home buyer, you may benefit from a longer amortization period. A shorter amortization can put a strain on your budget since payments are larger. Until you’ve lived in your house and get into the groove of your regular monthly expenses, it can be a challenge to predict how much you can truly afford. By using budgeting tools like our mortgage affordability calculator, you can get the ball rolling as it factors in your gross household income and expenses.
Most people think of mortgage payments as "monthly payments". But did you know you can increase the frequency of your payments? An accelerated payment schedule allows you to make payments every two weeks (biweekly rapid payments), or every week (weekly rapid payments) Not only will this save you money, but you'll finish paying off your mortgage sooner. More frequent payments also means less interest.
Wondering how much you could save by changing your mortgage payment schedule? Use our mortgage payment calculator to find out.
What are the different types of mortgages?
Closed Mortgage - The Most Popular Option
This is the most popular type of mortgage because you’re locked in. These types of mortgages cannot be prepaid, renegotiated or refinanced before maturity, because doing so will ding you with a penalty. Most closed mortgages do allow a bit of flexibility by giving you the option to repay the principal through lump sum payments, or by increasing your monthly payment amount by a certain percentage. So why choose a product with these restrictions? Well, lower interest rates for starters.
Since closed mortgages have significantly lower interest rates than open products, they are more attractive to the average home buyer – as long as no major changes are anticipated in the near future.
Open mortgage terms range from 6 months – 1 year for fixed rates, 3–5 years for variable rates, and can be paid off before maturity without penalty. Some open mortgages also allow you to convert to a closed mortgage without any penalty if needed.
An open mortgage may be a good choice if you're expecting a very large sum of money either through an insurance claim, divorce settlement, or inheritance, and you know you can easily pay off your entire mortgage in a short amount of time.
A convertible mortgage is a flexible option that lets you change the type of mortgage you have over a certain period of time without incurring a penalty. There are quite a few restrictions with convertible mortgages, so be sure to read the fine print.
A fixed rate mortgages means your interest rate stays consistent throughout your entire mortgage term. This way, you know exactly how much your bi-weekly or monthly payments will be. Fixed rates make it much easier to budget and create a financial plan, but their rates are generally higher because of the certainty and stability they provide.
A variable rate mortgage means your payment amount fluctuates in response to the rise and fall of the prime rate. This is a good option if you anticipate interest rates decreasing, you don't want to pay a premium for a fixed rate product, or you don't mind the uncertainty of not knowing what your rate may be in the future.
Blended mortgages allow you to take advantage of both fixed and variable rates. These types of mortgages are fairly customizable and no two blended mortgages are the same. Contact your mortgage broker or bank to get more details.
What is the mortgage approval process?
What is a pre-approval and why do I need it?
Before beginning your house hunt, it’s a good idea to get your mortgage pre-approved first. A pre-approval will give you a price point to keep in mind when searching for your dream home.
When getting a pre-approval, the lender/mortgage broker will tell you what you can afford based on your finances, and you will receive a certificate or written confirmation from the lender stating that you do indeed qualify. Getting pre-approved is easy – and typically, you can lock in your rate for up to 120 days. Read on for ways to get pre-approved, and how to lock in a rate (with a rate hold).
What information do I need to provide to get a mortgage pre-approval?
- Your income and employment: This means all sources of income, including paystubs, non-regular paycheques, alimony, or even child support.
- Your assets: Investments, like RRSPs, GICs, stocks, and any other accounts at your disposal.
- Your debts: Any outstanding car loans, personal loans, credit card debt, student loans, mortgages, etc.
What's the difference between pre-approval and final approval?
Pre-approval means you simply qualify for a mortgage. You are not obligated to stick with the pre-approval rate; it simply helps you to gauge just how much you can afford when looking for a home and will convince the seller that you are a serious buyer.
Final approval means you have definitively secured the mortgage and rate.
Who do I need to work with to buy a house?
You may not realize it at first, but buying a home involves more than just your real estate agent, the seller, and your bank. Whether you work with a bank or enlist the services of a mortgage broker, there are plenty of professionals on hand to help you through the mortgage process. Here are the pros and cons of using each.
House Hunting for First-Time Home Buyers
You have a budget in mind and a good grasp on the basics of a mortgage, and you have your pre-approval – now it’s time to hit those open houses!
This is undoubtedly the most exciting part of the process, but be prepared!
It may be easy to fall in love with a swimming pool or ensuite bathroom, but it's important to keep needs (like a third bedroom or proximity to work) separate from wants (like a fireplace). Take the time to establish your needs, and keep that list with you while house hunting.
Read more on how to work with real estate pros and crunch the costs when first budgeting for your dream home.
What should I expect from my real estate agent?
What should a real estate agent do for me?
If you choose to work with an agent, understanding their role will help you select the best possible person for the job. Your real estate professional should:
- Review your list of needs and wants and answer your questions about the current market
- Help you determine the type of home you can afford
- Make appointments to show you a range of possible homes from different neighbourhoods that fit your needs
- Preview properties before scheduling viewings to prevent you from wasting your time on visiting an unsuitable home for your needs
- Explain financing options (interest rates and mortgage products)
- Draw up the legally binding contract between you and the seller when you’re ready to place an offer
- Assist you in successfully completing the transaction
How do I choose a real estate agent?
Not all real estate professionals are created equal. Since you'll be working closely with this person for weeks, or even months, you'll want to find a professional whose personality and methods best fit your needs. When looking for a real estate agent, you can:
- Ask friends and family for referrals of agents they've worked with in the past
- Go to open houses – this is a great way to meet agents on duty
- Search online or drive around neighbourhoods to find homes for sale that interest you and contact the agent on the listing
Once you've found a professional who seems to fit the bill, ask questions! Pay particular attention to their answers. Were they listening to you? Do they seem like they're genuinely interested in helping you? Go with your instincts. If it feels right, it's probably a good match.
What is a Buyer Agency Agreement?
Once you've chosen a real estate professional, they may ask you to sign a Buyer Agency Agreement. This agreement gives the agent and brokerage you choose exclusive rights to represent your needs, meaning, as a buyer, you cannot work with anyone else. In exchange, the agent agrees to represent your needs first and to keep information concerning you, the buyer, confidential.
The agent you choose is bound ethically to be honest, legally to not misrepresent, and responsibly to take care when answering your questions or providing you with information. Basically, a Buyer Agency Agreement binds the professional you choose to always act with your best interests at heart in exchange for exclusivity.
Can I buy a house without a real estate agent?
You are free to go through the buying process without an agent. The main reason why most people sell their home privately without a real estate agent is to save on costs. You could possibly save thousands of dollars by foregoing what would be your agent’s commission. However, consider what a real estate agent does for you. The convenience may just be worth it depending on your level of real estate knowledge. Would you be comfortable drafting offers and completing the sale on your own? You’ll be responsible for the whole sales process and you will still have to pay a lawyer to finalize the deal.
What is a bidding war?
You've set your sights on your dream home... But someone else is also ogling your abode of choice. Bidding wars can become long and confusing, hence the importance of having a trustworthy real estate professional on your side to navigate you through the process. But if you're losing bidding war after bidding war, or you feel that your agent doesn't understand your budget or has your best interests in mind, look for another agent who does. Check out these tips on surviving (and maybe even winning!) a bidding war.
- Make sure you can afford it! This may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but since buying a property is likely the most expensive financial decision you will make in your lifetime, you should know what you’re getting yourself into and if it's worth going over the asking price. Create a few scenario budgets to determine how much you can go over. In addition to your mortgage payments, think about your day-to-day expenses (groceries, bills, transportation, etc.) as well as the costs associated with buying a home that may increase if the purchase price goes up (like the land transfer tax and insurance, for example). Think hard about your needs and if going over is really worth it before committing.
- Time your offer right. If you visit a property earlier in the week and put in an offer, you can possibly avoid the weekend open house rush. Or if your real estate agent gets a hold of a listing before it hits the market, visit it before it’s listed online (i.e. MLS) for the public, so there’s less competition.
- Be flexible but don’t go over your budget! The key to winning a bidding war may be to compromise more with the seller and limit your conditions. For example, you may want to change the seller’s closing date, or request that the seller throw in certain appliances with the property. But if you agree to buy the home “as is”, the seller may be more willing to go with your offer since you’re cooperating with their terms. You may even want to dig deeper and offer a larger down payment, showing that you mean business. But keep your budget in mind! If you simply can’t afford it, it’s not worth it.
Are there hidden costs to buying a home?
The cost of buying a home comes down to more than just the down payment and your regular mortgage payments. First-time home buyers are often shocked when they see the total amount they need to pay on closing day. Prepare for those costs now, and you'll avoid unpleasant surprises later. Plus, you can negotiate with your broker or lender to waive some of these fees.
Land Survey: $1,000 - $2,000
Most lenders require a survey of the property that outlines its boundaries so there is no confusion between neighboring properties later on. Although they may accept the last survey that was done on the property, depending on when it was last conducted, it may need to be done again.
Home Inspection: $350 - $600
Most lenders also require a home inspection before approving your mortgage, but even if they don't, it's worth the peace of mind to get one done. Home inspectors check the structural safety of the property and that all systems are functioning correctly. They can unveil costly issues so you can address them promptly with the seller.
Insurance: 1.75% - 2.95% of the Mortgage Value
If you are applying for a high-ratio mortgage (meaning you have less than a 20 % down payment), your lender will require you to purchase mortgage default insurance. This type of insurance protects the lender in case you no longer can make your mortgage payments. Most lenders will also require you to protect your home with fire and extended coverage insurance. Quite often, these types of insurance can be calculated right into your monthly mortgage payment.
Life Insurance or Mortgage Life Insurance: Rates Vary
While mortgage default insurance protects the lender, you may want to consider mortgage life insurance for your own protection. This type of insurance protects you and your family in case, for some reason, you are unable to make your mortgage payments. That way, the burden is not placed on your family and loved ones.
An individual life insurance plan may also be a better fit for some buyers as it offers greater peace of mind and less limitations on how you would use the policy payout.
Legal Fees: $500 - $1,000
Real estate lawyers manage all of the legal paperwork involved when acquiring a mortgage. After your purchase, they draft your mortgage contracts and assess the property to ensure there are no old mortgages or liens on the property. It’s a lot of paperwork, and you're responsible for the bill. Lawyer fees can be quite hefty and do include HST where applicable.
Land Transfer: 0.5% - 2% of the Property Value
Land Transfer Tax (LTT) is paid by everyone who purchases property. LTT is a marginal tax you must pay to the province when “buying land” or, simply put, just purchasing a house or condo.
Land transfer tax must be paid once the transaction has been closed, to a max of up to 30 days after closing.
Every province has their own land transfer tax, except for Alberta and Saskatchewan. However, home buyers in these provinces still incur a small transfer fee. Furthermore, certain municipalities, like Toronto, have an additional municipal land transfer tax.
HST: Dependent on Province
Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) is the 15 % provincial sales tax only applicable in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and in Ontario where it is 13 %. HST is applied to the purchase price of all new homes, but not to resale homes. It’s also applied to all services, including your lawyer fees, your real estate professional's commission, the home inspection, and your moving costs.
Appraisal: $300 - $500
Your lender will only lend you so much when it comes to your mortgage. The amount they lend you will either be a percentage of the appraised market value of your home, or a percentage of the home's purchase price – often, the lesser of the two. Someone on the lender's staff will conduct the appraisal, but the cost of the actual service comes out of your pocket.
How can I save if I’m a first-time home buyer?
For cash-strapped first-timers, there are government programs and tax credits to help offset some of the costs for your new home.
The Home Buyers’ Plan
As a first-time home buyer, you're eligible for the Home Buyer's Plan, which will allow you to withdraw up to $25,000 from your Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) to put towards your down payment. The catch? Any amount you withdraw must be paid back fully within 15 years, with a set amount required by the end of each year. If you can't pay it back on time, the remaining amount is added to your personal income for that year and you will need to claim it on your income taxes.
First-Time Home Buyer’s Tax Credit (HBTC)
The Home Buyer’s Tax Credit (HBTC) is a non-refundable tax credit for qualifying home buyers. HBTC is calculated by multiplying the lowest personal income tax rate for the year by $5,000. For example, in 2017, the lowest rate was 15 %, so the 2017 HBTC was $750 ($5,000 x 0.15 = $750). If you and your spouse are buying a home for the first time, you will likely qualify for HBTC. This means you or your spouse have already bought a qualifying home, and haven’t owned or lived in a primary residence for at least four years before the date of purchase.
Land Transfer Tax Rebate
Those purchasing property for the first time may qualify for a rebate on the provincial Land Transfer Tax, depending on the province. For example, in Ontario, first-time home buyers can receive a maximum rebate of $4,000 (or $2,000 for those who registered a land transfer at the rate prior to January 1, 2017). Municipalities with land transfer taxes may also offer rebates for first-time home buyers.
Closing the Deal for First-Time Home Buyers
Now that you’ve found the perfect home in your ideal neighbourhood, it’s time to make an offer! Closing the deal can be overwhelming, from moving in to figuring out how you can pay the mortgage off faster. Here’s what you need to know when first embarking on homeownership.
What should I do once I make an offer?
Determining your deposit
When you put in an offer to purchase a home, you are also expected to provide a deposit. This assures the seller that you will indeed go through with the sale when closing day arrives – and if you don’t, the seller keeps the deposit. If you do go through with the sale, the deposit will be credited in full and put towards the purchase of the house. There is no set amount that you need to provide, but generally speaking, a higher deposit says you're a serious buyer and can ultimately save you money on interest. Our handy mortgage calculator can even show you how different deposit values can greatly change your total interest paid.
And remember - the deposit and the down payment are not the same thing!
Get a home inspection
This step can come either before or after you make an offer, but you want to make sure it's done promptly so you have the opportunity to uncover potential major issues with the property sooner rather than later.
A licensed professional home inspector understands the ins and outs of a home and can look into things you wouldn’t even think of. If you were to do your own inspection, you’d most likely pick out surface problems – chipped paint, worn out floors, stained carpets – but you may not know enough about the roofing or foundation to do an accurate inspection. Since these flaws can be quite costly and you may want to bring them up with the seller, you'll want to leave the inspection to an expert who can ensure structural safety and that all systems are functioning correctly.
Discuss chattels and fixtures
Some sellers will entice buyers by offering them chattels or fixtures. Chattels are moveable objects that aren't normally considered part of the home. They include items such as microwaves, curtains, washers and dryers. Fixtures are somewhat permanent improvements that would normally be included in the sale, such as chandeliers and antique doorknobs. But since it is not always clear what will stay, make sure you have that conversation with the seller as you’re making your offer. The last thing you want is an unpleasant surprise on closing day (i.e. they took the fridge???).
Plan for closing day
At this point, if your offer has been accepted, it's time to close the deal! At closing, both parties must agree that all legal and financial obligations have been met. This includes any and all conditions that were written in the offer. If everyone agrees, congratulations! Ownership and possession of the home will be transferred to you.
How do I prepare to move?
Before packing a single box or calling on a moving truck, here’s a list of things you’ll need to take care of:
- Get home insurance. Make sure your new home is protected with a plan that covers any damage related to the home, inside and out. If you’re a first-time home buyer, you likely have never bought home insurance before. But if you do happen to have insurance on a current property and want to transition, you technically will have to cancel your old policy first. That being said, the cost may vary between policies since each property will likely have differing square footage, age, additional structures, and more. While you can stay with your current insurer, this is probably the best time to shop around for a new and better rate. You never know how much you could be saving on your premium with a different provider
- Request your phone, Internet and cable services be transferred to your new home.
- Contact the hydro company to get your connection turned on.
- Change your address. You’ll likely need to inform dozens of parties of your new address, including your employer, your bank, credit card providers, your doctor’s office, subscription services, etc. You’ll also need to change your address on your driver’s licence and health card.
Should I use movers or move myself?
Owning your own home is an exciting adventure. Moving your belongings into the home, however, is not as much fun. Moving can be tiring, time-consuming, expensive – or even a mix of all three. But it doesn't have to be!
The DIY method can save you big, but it’s imperative that you be organized. So if you have little time or patience, hiring professional movers may be the way to go, though even that can be costly.
If you are unsure of where to start, go through this checklist of things to do now in preparation of the big day.
Decide if you want to hire a pro or move in on your own
Hiring professionals sure takes the pain out of moving, but it'll cost you. It's important to ensure the company you hire is trustworthy and right for your move, so references are a must. Ask your friends and family for referrals or poke around through online reviews to start. Here are some questions to ask before hiring a professional moving company:
- How experienced are they?
- Is their rate fixed? What does it include?
- Do they charge an hourly or daily rate?
- How many movers are included?
- Will they pack your possessions for you?
- Will your belongings be wrapped and protected?
- Do they provide insurance?
- Are you liable if they hurt themselves during the move?
- What is their policy if they damage or lose any of your items?
On the other hand, if you want to save costs, rent a truck and move on your own, here’s a list to help you pack with ease.
What new expenses will I face in my new home?
Now that we've assessed the costs outside the purchase price and those associated with moving in, it's time to develop an ongoing budget. You'll want to sort out your monthly expenses, determine how to pay off your mortgage sooner, and factor in the renewal process.
Expenses you should budget for in your new home
While the transition from renter to homeowner is filled with rewards, it comes with its own set of responsibilities. Budgeting for home expenses requires organization and some degree of restraint. It's also important to have money set aside for unexpected maintenance costs. Typical monthly expenses may include:
- Mortgage payments
- Property taxes
- Home insurance
- Maintenance / Condo fees (if applicable)
- Heat / Air conditioning
- Appliance rental (if applicable)
- Maintenance & upkeep
How can I pay my mortgage off faster?
Once you've secured a mortgage, your focus has likely switched to getting rid of it… and fast. This is possible if you follow these three steps!
Find the best rate
A low interest rate not only means that you’ll pay less interest, but it also means you can dedicate more money to paying off the principal balance of the mortgage. A low interest rate can easily be found by shopping around. And while this sounds time consuming, RateSupermarket.ca can compare the market within minutes for you, finding you the best deal on your mortgage and saving you time and money.
Turn your payments into accelerated payments
It’s common for people to make monthly mortgage payments. But if most of us get paid bi-weekly, why not pay your mortgage bi-weekly as well? In fact, on average, those who choose accelerated payment plans pay their mortgages off five years faster than those who don't. Accelerated payments are different than regular bi-weekly or weekly payments. They can take years off of your mortgage as you’re essentially paying 13-months-worth of mortgage payments per year instead of 12, divided into weekly (52) or bi-weekly (26) payments over the year. Therefore, you’re paying off more of your mortgage in a shorter span of time.
Make lump sum payments
Depending on the type of mortgage you have, you may be allowed to make lump sum payments annually. If you choose a closed mortgage, you are restricted to only paying off a certain percentage of the mortgage value each year. However, if you choose an open mortgage, you have the luxury of making additional payments whenever you want. This way, if you're lucky enough to receive a tax rebate, your bonus, or an inheritance of some kind, you could put the money towards your mortgage. And if you have additional funds but you've maxed out on your allotted pre-payments, you could always set the extra money aside until your mortgage is up for renewal. Come renewal time, you will likely be able to put the additional funds toward it without penalty.
What should I do when it comes time to renew my mortgage?
A few weeks before your mortgage's renewal date, you'll likely get a glossy white envelope from your bank with a letter inviting you to auto renew your mortgage.
And as convenient as that option may be, it’s possibly the worst decision you could make if you want to save money and intend on paying off your mortgage quickly.
Renewal time offers an awesome opportunity to score yourself an even lower rate! It's crucial that you take advantage of this time to shop around the market, because quite likely, your bank no longer offers the best rate. It may have had the best rate back when you applied for your mortgage, but rates change often and that may not be the case now. Even a small difference in rate will lead to big savings over the years.
Another lender may be able to provide you what you need, and at a lower cost at that. Once again, RateSupermarket.ca can compare the market and find you the best rate for your mortgage and within minutes.
Should I be concerned with home improvements and renovations?
In Canada's most competitive real estate markets, where million-dollar homes are the norm, many first-timers may come to realize that buying their dream home is just that – a dream. The solution may be to simply build your desired abode, or add a few strategic improvements to a starter home. That second bedroom, spa-like bathroom, or chef's-grade kitchen could be just a long weekend's worth of work (and a considerable loan) away. Thinking of renovating your home? Here are some things to consider and avoid to get the most out of your dollar.
The Best Canadian Mortgage Rates in Ontario
Compare Rates from 30+ Canadian Mortgage Brokers & Lenders
Ready to find your best mortgage rate in Canada?
To get started, tell us a bit about your location and borrowing needs - and we'll do the rest! Your personalized results will include the best rates from lenders and mortgage brokers, right in your region. Simply pick a product you like, and we'll put you in touch for more info by email, website or phone - no obligation or purchase required.