A new program the federal government has announced to subsidize first-time homebuyers isn’t likely to help the market but more likely to harm it.
And not only is it not going to help out the market, but it’s not going to help out new homeowners.
In its recently announced budget, the government is essentially putting the weight of turning around the market on the backs of people just entering the housing market.
Part of the problem with the plan is that we only know what’s happening on the front end. People buying their first home will be eligible for a 5% top up from the from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to the total cost of a home. That amount increases to 10% for new constructions. To qualify, a household must have a combined income of less than $120,000, and the CMHC will only pick up a maximum of $480,000.
In exchange for this, the housing corporation gets an equity share in your home.
While we know what the government will give new homebuyers, we don’t know what it’s going to cost them down the road. Believe it or not, there’s been no announcement on what interest rates will be offered on the loans, nor what the terms of repayment would be. Complete costing isn’t expected until at least the fall, likely after the federal election.
But the real problem at the heart of this is the measures won’t do anything to help the affordability of homes. It’s not going to decrease the price of housing, and it’s just going to put the burden of propping up the market on the backs of new entrants.
In RBC’s most recent housing affordability report, released in March, the bank said a softer housing market was making houses slightly more affordable, as their national affordability index dropped 0.7 percentage points to 51.9%. (The lower the score, the more affordable homes are.)
“The fourth-quarter relief barely made a dent in Vancouver and Toronto where affordability remains at crisis levels. Owning a home in both of these markets, as well as in Victoria and increasingly Montreal, is a huge stretch for ordinary buyers,” RBC said in a press release.
In Montreal, the bank’s score is 44.5%, and RBC said the situation is not critical just yet.
“Housing affordability is eroding gradually to levels that could potentially pinch buyers—though so far they haven’t shown any sign of balking,” they said.
But with this new CMHC policy, that gradual erosion is likely to turn critical when this new wave of homebuyers crashes into the market.
One of the potential risks with this scenario is called overhang. Essentially, because a new policy has been announced, but hasn’t come into force yet, many Canadians who are likely to qualify are going to decide to put off their purchases. For now, un-bought supply will build up. But as soon as this policy goes into effect, these first-time buyers are going to suck up huge swathes of the housing market, and prices are going to skyrocket.
The new federal program is designed to lower the monthly mortgage payments of new homeowners by what amounts to a few hundred dollars a month. That can make a huge difference in the budget of a young family, but to do this, the government is putting their hands in the pockets of new homeowners for an unspecified amount, while at the same time risking further unaffordability in the housing market.
They could have had the same effect—lowering monthly payments—by re-introducing 30-year amortizations. Instead, they’ve kept the limit for CMHC-insured mortgages set to 25 years.
The shorter amortizations coupled with the continuation of the strict stress-testing rules, covered extensively in recent North East Mortgages blog posts, puts pressure on people on the lower end of the market. The stress test makes sure you can’t just handle the rate you’re signing on for, but makes sure you can handle an additional 2 percentage on top of it.
The rules the government has passed in the last few years have made it more difficult for new buyers and established buyers alike. They’ve also made it hard for people to refinance their more toxic debt, putting them into situations far riskier than the relative rarity of mortgage default.
Adjusting those rules would have a wider effect and give more people the step up they need to enter the housing market.
If the government really wanted to help with the affordability of homes, they have plenty of better options. This narrow measure is going to end up causing more harm than good.