24 Feb

Real Estate: 10 things you need to know


Posted by: Nick Kaaki

By Tony Wong – Business Reporter | Wed Jul 21 2010

Toronto Star business reporter Tony Wong has been writing about real estate for the past 10 years.

Next to public speaking, buying or selling a home is at the top of many people’s fear and loathing list. It’s understandable. A home is the biggest investment you’ll ever make and while exciting, the potential for things to go wrong is pretty big. That adds up to enough stress to keep you awake at night thinking about all the what-ifs. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are 10 things to consider when buying a home.

1. The housing market isn’t really a market

At least not in the way you might think. While housing analysts like to compare real estate returns to stock market returns, it is a misleading comparison.

The first big difference is that a stock market is a place where you can by and sell immediately. In the real estate market you can wait months for the home you want to come on the market and just as long to find someone who wants to buy yours. The price you expect may not bear any resemblance to the one you get.

The long run return on stocks is also a lot better. The average stock in the Standard & Poors 500 index, a basket of blue chip U.S. stocks, has returned about 7.5 per cent a year after inflation in each of the last 25 years. The average increase in the value of a Canadian home over the same period petty much tracks the rate of inflation which during the same period was 2.5 per cent.

A home is also more than an investment. It has all kinds of intangible qualities, including a neighbourhood you want to live in, a spot with a particular view or landscape, a type of architecture that you enjoy. So, while it’s tempting to think of your primary home as a profit centre ripe for a flip, that shouldn’t be the main purpose.

Besides, your Microsoft stock can’t keep you warm at night. (Unless you bought it when Bill Gates was still working out of his garage. In which case, you probably have your own heating company.)

2. It’s always a good time to buy

No it isn’t. People who bought at the height of the market in the 1989 real estate bubble, didn’t break even until prices bounced back in 2002. That’s 13 years. And even then they didn’t make their money back. Factoring in inflation, they actually lost money. House prices don’t go up forever. Buy when your circumstances dictate, not because your neighbor the agent says it’s a good time to.

3. Location, Location, Location.

Yah, they’re right. You’ll pay more initially, but investing in a property in the good neighborhood close to transit will pay dividends down the road when it comes time to sell

4. Buy the cheapest house on the street

Some people argue you shouldn’t, because the home will compare poorly to the other homes when you sell.

I say go for it. It may already be discounted because it looks like a shack compared with other properties and provides far more upside if you spruce it up in the future. A rising tide can also help to lift all boats. As the street gentrifies, infill housing will continue to keep property values high. Getting your foot in the right address is half the battle. Hello Park Place!

5. Do I need an agent?

No, you don’t. While a good realtor can be a huge asset, not everyone needs professional advice. If you have time, selling your own home can save you a ton of money on commissions. With the advent of the internet, and the opening up of the Multiple Listing Service there are many more services for the do it yourselfer to choose from.

6. If you want an agent…

If you don’t have the time, or would rather use professional advice, a good realtor can be a boon, because they know the neighborhood and can potentially get you top dollar. But like any other service, the results will vary. So make sure you interview several before choosing.

7. Renovating will give me huge return

Stop watching all those television shows where some fancy designer redos the entire house in a week with faucets that cost more than your BMW. Okay, I like them too, but that doesn’t mean you have to gut your kitchen to sell your home.

Most experts say you’ll get the best bang for your buck by redoing the kitchen and washrooms. But even for the most sought after features by homebuyers, the return on investment is anywhere from 75 per cent to at best 100 per cent. That means in many cases if you spend $10,000 you’ll only add that much vale at best and maybe far less.

8. It just needs a coat of paint

When it comes times to sell, you may have been living in your home for so long that you don’t notice the coffee stains on the couch and the Sponge Bob wallpaper in the washroom. Get a second pair of eyes to have a look around. This could be friend, relative or your agent and hopefully they’ll tell it like it is.

You may want professional help in the form of a home stager who can arrange your furniture and make your place look showroom ready. But you don’t need to pay big bucks. Start by asking a friend. She’ll tell you why Sponge Bob must go.

9. Don’t try to time the market

I know people who sold their home at the peak of the market, and rented a condo while riding out the crash.

After the crash, they repurchased near the same neighborhood for substantially less. This is the dream of every home investor. I also have friends who thought the market was going to crash, so they waited for four years to buy a home. Prices kept going up and they finally threw in the towel and bought at a higher price than they expected. Then the market crashed. Housing is a long term investment, and sometimes you just have to commit.

10. Keep your perspective

My friends think think their 1,500 square foot semi is worth a bundle, because they spent hours building the deck and hand painting the cute gold cherubs on the walls.

Being emotionally attached to your home means that when it comes time to sell, your objectivity is compromised. In a down market, with more competing listings, your home is going to be difficult to sell and the price less than you expect. Can you accept that?

20 Feb

Borrowing: 10 things you need to know


Posted by: Nick Kaaki

By Ellen Roseman | Mon Aug 09 2010

Taken from moneyville.ca

Ellen Roseman is a personal finance columnist for The Toronto Star.

Canadians love credit cards but the interest rate charges are high.


You’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to borrowing money. You don’t need to book an appointment with your bank manager to ask for a loan anymore. Credit is easily available, as long as you have a good credit history, and lenders are anxious to get your business.

My advice is to shop around as carefully as you shop around for the stuff you buy on credit, such as cars, furniture and home renovations.

But before starting to compare loan rates and features, here are 10 things you should know about borrowing.

1. Your credit history is important

To know how good you look to potential lenders, check your credit report at Canada’s two major credit bureaus, Equifax and Transunion. A credit report is a snapshot of your credit history. It shows how quickly you pay your bills and how often you’ve had collection issues. It might even show you’ve been a victim of fraud or confused with another person. While you have the right to see your credit report, you can get a copy for free only if you send a written request with two pieces of ID. Online requests are faster, but will cost you money.

2. Your credit score is important to lenders

A credit score is not the same as a credit history. You’ll pay about $25 to get copy of your credit score by ordering it online from the credit bureaus. It’s based on a mathematical formula that considers your payment history and other factors, such as how much of your credit limit you have used. The score is a three-digit number, ranging from 300 (low) to 900 (high). The higher the better? There’s a great guide to understanding your credit report and credit score at the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada.

3. Make sure the information is accurate

Make sure the information in your credit report is correct and up to date. If it’s not, talk to the credit bureau. Remember, the credit bureau has to contact the credit granter (such as a bank or a cell phone company) to see if the information is incorrect. To avoid delays, you can also contact the credit granter and ask it to follow up with the credit bureau. Once an error is confirmed, the credit bureau has 30 days to correct your credit report (except in Alberta, where it’s 90 days). If the credit granter refuses to fix the error, you can submit a brief statement to the credit bureau, saying the information is in dispute. This will be added to your credit report.

4. You can improve your credit score

To polish your image as a borrower and raise your credit score, you should always pay your bills on time. If you can’t do this, pay at least the required minimum amount a few days before the due date. Try to keep your balance well below the credit limit on your credit card or line of credit. Finally, you should be careful about making a lot of credit applications at once. Your credit score suffers if too many potential lenders ask about your credit in too short a time. (It looks as if you’re desperate.)

5. You need to build up a credit history

Your credit score will be low if you don’t have a history of borrowing money and paying it back. You can build up a credit history by applying for a credit card and using it. Once there’s activity, the card issuer will tell the credit bureaus about your outstanding balance and your record of making payments on time. You may be asked to get a secured credit card, which means you have to deposit a sum of money with the card issuer. This reduces the risk if you default on your payments. Check out information about secured credit cards and a comparison of the rates and features. It’s easier to get a loan when someone co-signs with you. But if you can’t repay, the other person is on the hook.

6. You may need a co-signer

If you have a limited or poor credit history, you will be seen as a high-risk borrower. You may not be able to get credit unless you find someone with a high credit score to sign the loan with you. Lenders know a co-signer cuts the risk, since the other person has to make all the remaining payments if you stop. You’re asking for a big favour when getting friends or family to co-sign a loan. So, you should write a contract setting out the payment schedule. This won’t hold up in court if you default, but it makes the relationship more professional.

7. Be careful with a personal line of credit

A line of credit often has a lower interest rate than a loan. It’s certainly more flexible. Once you’re approved for a certain credit limit, you can take out as much as you want and pay back only a required minimum amount each month. But remember you’re making interest-only payments, so you can pay the monthly minimum and never make any progress on trimming your debt. Remember, too, that a line of credit has a floating rate that can go up. If you prefer fixed rates, stick to a conventional loan.

8. Secured or unsecured line of credit?

Financial institutions love lines of credit. They know it’s hard to resist temptation when you’re handed a large amount of potential spending power. A line of credit backed by your assets, such as investments or a principal residence, usually has a lower rate than an unsecured line of credit. Both are based on the bank’s prime rate, such as prime plus 1 per cent or prime plus 3 per cent. You can save money if you get a line of credit secured by your house at the same time you apply for a mortgage or refinance an existing mortgage. Always try to pay more than the minimum amount so that you’re not spinning on a treadmill of debt.

9. Credit cards are a costly way to borrow

Most standard credit cards have annual interest rates of 18 to 20 per cent. And you’ll pay 25 per cent or more if you miss making a couple of minimum payments in a year. If you carry a balance on your credit card from month to month, you will lose the grace period of 20 to 25 days on new purchases. Cash advances on a credit card are also costly, since there’s no grace period. You’ll pay interest from day one and a fee for cash advances as well. So, use the credit card as a convenient payment method, but look for low-cost credit elsewhere.

10. Avoid payday loans

A payday loan is one that you promise to pay back from your next salary cheque, usually in two weeks or less. These loans are offered by privately owned payday loan companies and cheque cashing outlets, not by the big banks. Lenders ask for proof you’re over 18, with a permanent address, regular income and active bank account. To be sure you repay, they ask you to write a post-dated cheque or authorize a direct withdrawal from your account. Payday loans are expensive because of all the fees that may be charged. On a $300 loan for two weeks, you can pay $50 in fees. That’s equivalent to a 435 per cent annual interest rate, according to the FCAC.

14 Feb

3 ways to deal with rising mortgage rates


Posted by: Nick Kaaki

Here we go, again. The economy is generating more jobs, a handful of banks raise mortgage rates and all of a sudden you’re being advised to lock-in your mortgage before the bank doors slam shut. In fact, some say you’d better hurry-up and buy a house now before mortgage rates go so high you’re locked-out of the housing market for ever.

This is not the first time that mortgage rates are on the brink of blooming only to fade a few months later. This has happened more than a handful of times in the last decade. The headlines are often the same. A month or two of increasing mortgage rates, the public is urged to act now, and then a few months later something unforeseen appears on the horizon.

The last occasion was just over a year ago. The posted 5-year mortgage rate in March, 2010 went from 4.7 per cent to 5.15 per cent in April, and then to 5.3 per cent by May. The recommendations were clear: lock-in. But then, by October they were back to 4.5 per cent. The economy sputtered, Greece and Spain hit the headlines and the rest was history.

Don’t get me wrong. Short-term interest rates are abnormally low today and the Bank of Canada has pledged to raise them eventually. But that is a far cry from advocating that you lock-in your mortgage – which is actually driven by long-term bond market rates – or heaven forbid using this as an excuse to buy a house you can’t really afford.

My main concern is about relevance and context of this advice. I call it the fallacy of “carve-out thinking.” It stems from the misguided notion that modern-day personal financial problems should be viewed and solved in isolation.

Remember that mortgage payments are just one component of your personal balance sheet. You may also have an RRSP, TFSAs and other investment accounts. You may also have a pension, cottage or rental property and a very large portfolio of debt. Every one of these holdings is sensitive to interest rates.

If long-term interest rates move up quickly and substantially then any bonds or fixed income investment you hold will fall in value – possibly by a lot. A big and sudden rise in interest rates won’t be kind to the real estate market either. There will be many spillover side effects.

Reacting to this fear by locking-in your mortgage is akin to preparing for an ice and snow storm by only salting your driveway, but forgetting to close your windows. Sure, that helps, but if you really believe a bad storm is on its way, there are many other – possibly more important—things you should be doing to prepare.

So what should you do with your mortgage? Here’s the best guidance I can offer.

1.Don’t rush into home ownership because you are convinced that mortgage rates are headed-up and you will never see 5 per cent again.

2.If you’ve just bought a home and you have a large mortgage, relative to the home’s value, I urge you to lock-in for as long as possible. You probably should not have “floated” to begin with and are now facing the probable risk that real estate prices decline and interest rates increase. Add to this the possibility of job loss, disability or other macro factors, and you are the ideal candidate for a fixed rate mortgage. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to renew your mortgage in a year or two from now, if rates increase and possibly the appraised value of your house has declined by 10 per cent or more.

3.If your mortgage payments are only a small fraction of your monthly expenses and you have built-up substantial equity in your home, and – this is key – you have a diversified portfolio of financial assets, like stocks and bond inside your RRSP and other accounts, then my advice to you is very different.

If you are concerned that interest rates are on their way up, then perhaps you should change your asset allocation and reduce the fixed income investments in your portfolio . Remember, if mortgage rates increase, this is because long-term interest rates have gone-up and the longer the duration of your bonds, the greater are your losses. I say, lighten-up on bonds. If the prognostications prove correct and rates go up, then yes you will pay more on the mortgage but you were spared the pain in your RRSP. On the other hand, if rates stay around their current levels, then you win. . Remember, locking-in today will likely involve paying more than what you are paying right now, often by 1 per cent to 2 per cent more. Think of it as insurance.

The point is to think more holistically about all the financial assets – and risk exposures—on your personal balance sheet. As for me, I have a floating rate mortgage because I can tolerate the risk and want to pay as little as possible for unnecessary insurance.