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How Canadian homes became debt traps

In 1998, Ann bought a one-bedroom condo in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver. Gainfully employed at a printing company, she found the monthly mortgage payments were within her budget (Ann and others quoted in this story asked that Maclean’s not use their full names). The building was on the older side, and eventually she got the itch to update the decor. She intended to replace only her bathroom sink; she ended up renovating the entire bathroom. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, now that I’ve started…’ ” The kitchen came next, then the living room and finally the bedroom. Ann thought the renos, funded partly on credit and spaced out over a few months, would boost her condo’s value. She also wanted to keep up with her neighbours. “Everyone was doing something,” she says.

Finances became tight afterwards, and she only paid the minimum on her credit card each month. Every year, her condo fees rose while her salary at the printing company (where she still works) stagnated. She began relying on credit for everyday expenses, and later took out a second card.

Soon, one of her banks began calling with a solution to help manage her debt. She ignored the inquiries, preferring not to think about her finances, but she started to feel desperate: “I just wanted to do something, and that was the only thing coming my way.” The bank offered a loan at a low rate to pay off her high-interest credit card debt, and she ended up taking out a second mortgage for $80,000. The interest rate still wasn’t manageable. “It was a huge mistake,” she says.

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Saddled with two mortgages, rising condo fees and a flat income, she continued relying on credit cards. Surprise expenses, such as dental work, added to her debt. Embarrassment kept her from seeking help. Three years ago, she decided to sell her condo. Despite Vancouver’s booming market, the sale didn’t solve Ann’s financial problems. She moved in with a friend and was able to pay off her mortgages, but she couldn’t make much of a dent in her credit card debt.

This year, Ann turned 64. She was carrying $70,000 in debt, and knew she couldn’t work another decade to pay it down. That realization prompted her to seek help, and she eventually met with an insolvency trustee. Earlier this year, Ann’s trustee filed a consumer proposal on her behalf. Less severe than personal bankruptcy, a proposal is an offer to all of an individual’s creditors to pay a portion of debt under a strict plan over a maximum of five years. The remainder is discharged. Creditors typically agree to these arrangements since they are guaranteed to recoup at least some of their money. For Ann, filing a proposal came as a relief. “I actually feel like I can breathe again,” she says.

Other Canadians are still suffocating. Earlier this year, the household debt-to-income ratio hit another record of 167.8 per cent. A long period of abnormally low interest rates has enabled Canadians to carry massive debts, since monthly payments appear manageable. Further, in cities with rising home values, particularly Toronto and Vancouver, homeowners can secure a home equity line of credit (HELOC) to pay other debts or simply fund their lifestyles. Last spring, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada warned that the increased use of HELOCs “may lead Canadians to use their homes as ATMs, making it easier for them to borrow more than they can afford.”

Insolvencies, though, are rare. As of the end of July, there were nearly 123,000 consumer proposals and personal bankruptcies filed by Canadians this year, a decline of 1.2 per cent from the same period last year. That might be a sign of fiscal prudence, but it’s also the result of record low interest rates that ease debt-carrying costs. Scott Terrio, an estate administrator at Cooper & Co., a licensed insolvency trustee in Toronto, calls this phenomenon “extend and pretend.” Canadians can extend their debt repayment terms and pretend to live a lifestyle they can’t otherwise obtain. He sees it all the time—couples with decent jobs carrying large mortgages, and putting daycare, cars and vacations on credit.

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Some reach a trigger moment when they can no longer pretend—a job loss, say, or divorce or illness. But lately Terrio has noticed a change in his business. More clients are coming in because they’re simply tapped out. As with Ann in Vancouver, there is no trigger. “It’s a gradual realization for some people,” Terrio says. “They can’t do it anymore.” Lana Gilbertson, an insolvency trustee in Vancouver, has seen the same change. “Nowadays, they have jobs, they’re making money, they’re plugging along, but they’re just in over their heads,” she says.

The cost of borrowing is set to rise, adding strain to households. The Bank of Canada hiked rates twice this year, signalling more could be coming—depending, in part, on whether households can handle it. Economists at TD Bank Group believe two more rate hikes are likely next year. That will cause rates on everything from lines of credit to car loans to mortgages to tick up. At the same time, house prices are not rising as quickly as they once were in many Canadian cities. RBC Economics forecasts home prices in Canada will increase 11.1 per cent this year—and just 2.2 per cent in 2018. Canadians won’t be able to pull cash out of their homes so easily to get themselves out of trouble. “The insolvency business is cyclical, and we’re at least a year overdue for shedding blood in the system,” Terrio says. “If ever we were poised to hit that right on the head, it’s now.”

For some Canadians who struggle with debt, the problem can be traced back to real estate. In a survey TD released in September, 56 per cent of respondents from across Canada were willing to exceed their budget by up to $50,000 to purchase a home. At the same time, 97 per cent of homeowners said they wished they’d factored in other obligations before buying, such as property taxes, maintenance costs and “overall lifestyle expenses.”

The problem is not confined to Toronto or Vancouver, where huge price gains have enticed buyers to stretch themselves for fear of getting permanently priced out. In Regina, Joshua and his wife purchased a house in 2014 when expecting their first child. Both 24 years old at the time, they carried about $35,000 in debt between them, mostly tied to student loans. “We rushed into getting a house because we just thought it would be the right thing to do,” Joshua says. “It almost felt wrong to be renting and having a kid.” (Joshua’s mom pressured them to buy, too.) In one weekend, they viewed 16 houses. The very last one felt right. They put down five per cent and moved in.