Mortgage Terms

Your guide to mortgage term definitions.

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With so much focus on mortgage rates, consumers often neglect one of the most important decisions in mortgage financing: choosing the mortgage term. It's not always about choosing the lowest rate, but more so about choosing the mortgage product with the conditions and mortgage term that best fit your needs. Choose a mortgage term that’s too long and you could be bound to an unnecessarily high rate or be surprised with excessive penalty fees if you need to break the mortgage early. Choose a mortgage term that’s too short and you could be exposed to higher interest rate risk at renewal that may put a big strain on your budget.

A mortgage term is the length of time over which the borrower is agreeing to abide by the conditions of the mortgage. During this period, the legal parameters of the mortgage are in effect – interest rate, pre-payment restrictions, etc. At the end of the term, the borrower can pay off the remaining balance of the mortgage, renew it, refinance it or switch lenders.

A mortgage term can generally range from 6 months to 10 years, with 5 years being the most common term length. Mortgages with terms of three years and less are considered a short-term mortgage, while mortgages with a term of five years or more is classified as a long-term mortgage. A mortgage term is different than the mortgage amortization, which is the period of time it will take for the mortgage balance to be fully paid off. A mortgage term is normally less than the mortgage amortization, unless the borrower is close to paying off the mortgage.

Short term mortgages

Short-term mortgages generally entail lower rates than long term mortgages. However, borrowers are more exposed to interest rate risk given that it needs to be renewed more frequently. For example, consider two people – one purchases a five-year mortgage and the other purchases a two-year mortgage. If rates increase during the first two years, the person who purchased a two-year mortgage will be affected by having to renew at a higher rate. The person who purchased a five-year mortgage will still be paying the rate in their original mortgage agreement.

If you believe rates will stay flat or decrease in the future, a short-term mortgage could be a good fit. A short-term mortgage would also be appropriate in the following circumstances:

  • You intend the sell the property in the near future
  • You expect your financial situation to change in the near future (i.e. receive an inheritance, settle a divorce, etc.)
  • You will need to access equity in your home in the near future for a major life event (i.e. business venture, education, etc.)

Long-term mortgages

Long-term mortgages generally entail higher rates than short-term mortgages, but also provide greater protection against the risk of rising interest rates. It is important to make sure that you don’t choose a long-term mortgage unless you’re sure that you won’t need to sell your home or refinance your mortgage prior to maturity. Penalties for breaking your mortgage early can be substantial with a long-term mortgage.

If you believe that rates will increase in the future, a long-term mortgage could be a good fit. A long-term mortgage would also be appropriate in the following circumstances:

  • Rates are on the rise and you risk not being able to afford your mortgage if you have to renew in the short term at a higher rate
  • You’re unable to qualify for a short-term mortgage (To qualify for a short-term mortgage, the lender’s higher posted 5-year fixed rate is used)
  • You own an income-producing property and need to have cash flow predictability

Common mortgage terms

According to a Mortgage Professionals Canada report, 26% of borrowers have a term of less than 5 years, 66% have a term of 5 years and 8% have a term greater than 5 years. The report also shows a higher tendency for younger borrowers to choose shorter terms (26% of 18-34 years of age chose a term less than 5 years) relative to older borrowers (18% 55+ years of age chose a term less than 5 years).

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