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Mortgages Made Easy For First-Time Home Buyers

Jul 17, 2008
Understanding what mortgages are and how they work can be mystifying for first-time homebuyers faced with the need to get financing to purchase their first home. Technically, the type of mortgage that home buyers use to get a loan to purchase a home is a contractual instrument that gives the lender, known as the "mortgagee", an interest and certain rights in the property purchased by the borrower, or "mortgagor" (When it comes time for you to read and review the documents setting out your mortgage, the easy way to keep the terms straight is to remember that the "e" that ends "mortgagee" is the same "e" at the beginning of "lender", while the "or" at the end of "mortgagor" is the same "or" at the beginning of "borrower".)

Like many legal terms, such as lien or trespass, the word "mortgage" has its origins in the Law French that heralds back to the beginning of British (and American) common law. A "mortgage" - from the French "morte", meaning death - was known as a "death pledge". That is, when the debt was repaid the interest and rights of the mortgagee or lender in the borrower's land or property expires, or dies. The mortgagor then has clear title without any rights, interests or "encumberances" remaining with the mortgagee.

Amortization, Interest Rate and Term

There are three main terms that will apply to all mortgages - the amortization period, the interest rate, and the term of the mortgage. The "amortization period" is the total amount of time (usually expressed in years) which it will take for the mortgagor to pay off his or her mortgage given the terms of the mortgage. The most typical amortization period when an individual is purchasing a home is 25 years, although longer amortization periods of up to 40 years have become more common and commercially available.

The "amortization period" is not to be confused with the "term" of a mortgage. Most usually a mortgage agreement will be for a specific number of years, but for less than the full amortization period. Formerly, the longest term available for mortgage financing was five years, However, some longer term mortgages of up to ten or even twenty-five years have now become available from some commercial lenders.

The difficulty with longer term mortgages, for both mortgagor and mortgagee (borrower and lender), is determining what is a fair and reasonable interest rate to be charged on the mortgage over the duration of such a long period of time. Interest rates fluctuate over time, and forecasting interest costs over an extended period is exceedingly difficult.

The interest rate is the percentage of interest that a lender will charge on an annual basis for the mortgage loan. On a $100,000 mortgage loan, a 5% interest rate would mean that the borrower is paying $5,000 per year in interest.

Mortgages payments are most often made in equal installments paid on a monthly basis over the term of the mortgage. Each monthly payment will go first towards paying the interest on the mortgage loan, and then towards paying off the principal, or outstanding balance, of the loan according to a fixed formula. As the principal of the loan is reduced, less money is owed in interest and consequently more of each payment goes towards paying off the interest.

Each mortgage payment is thus a blended payment, consisting of both an interest payment and a payment towards the mortgage principal. Because the principal amount (and thus the money owing under the mortgage) is reduced over time. the first payments during the term of the mortgage will go mostly towards paying interest, while a greater proportion of principal will be paid off in payments made at the end of the mortgage term.

Fixed-Rate and Variable-Rate Mortgages

Mortgages are also distinguished on the basis of how the interest rate is set. There are two main types of mortgages a fixed-rate mortgage and an open-rate or variable rate mortgage. Under a fixed-rate mortgage, the interest rate is specified for the entire term of the mortgage. Under an open-rate or variable mortgage, the interest rate will vary based on market conditions, usually specified in terms of the mortgagor bank or trust company's prime lending rate.

Whether to choose a fixed-rate or variable rate mortgage is one of the biggest decisions facing the first-time homebuyer, and anyone seeking mortgage financing. If interest rates are relatively low historically speaking, the interest rates that fixed-rate mortgages are offered at will be higher than the rate offered for a variable rate mortgage. Here the bank or other lender assumes that rates are likely to go up, and charges a higher interest rate for a fixed-rate mortgage to assume that risk.

When interest rates are relatively high - say 9% to 10% - fixed-rate mortgages are typically offered at a lower rate than is being offered for variable rate mortgages. Here, the borrower is assuming the risk that interest rates will not go down from historically high levels. Consequently he or she can usually borrow money at a better fixed-rate than variable rate.

Open Mortgages versus Closed Mortgages

The other significant differentiation between mortgage types that will be of great interest to first time homebuyers is whether their mortgage is an open mortgage or a closed mortgage. An open mortgage can typically be paid off without penalty at any time durng the term of the mortgage without penalty. Under a closed mortgage, on the other hand, there will be a sometimes quite significant monetary penalty for paying off the mortgage before the term of the mortgage expires (although, a closed mortgage may allow for periodic lump sum payments that will go directly towards paying off the principal of the mortgage).

Open mortgages are most often preferable where the homebuyer wants to avoid being locked into his or her mortgage arrangements, thinks interest rates may decrease during the mortgage term or thinks he or she may be selling the mortgaged property before the expiration of the mortgage's term. Closed mortgages are usually preferable where the homebuyer is operating on a tight budget and needs the security of knowing that mortgage payments will be unaffected by rising interest rates.


Following the expiration of the initial mortgage term, the remaining principal that is outstanding on the mortgage will have to be paid to the lender. This will usually entail refinancing a mortgage for a new term with the same or a different lender. Again, on refinancing the principle variables will be the amortization period, the interest rate and the term of the refinancing. The same considerations will also apply: fixed-rate versus variable rate, open mortgage versus closed mortgage.

Importantly, refinancing may also be available during the term of your mortgage. As your home's principal is paid off your home equity - or the difference between what is owed on a home and its market value - increases. Mortgage refinancing is also generally available that will enable you to access that home equity through a second mortgage or line of credit secured against the equity in your home, even during the term of your first mortgage.

Your realtor, financial advisor or an independent mortgage broker should be able and willing to walk you through the different mortgages that are available to you, so that you can determine the mortgage product that is right for your circumstances - whether you are purchasing your first home or refinancing.
About the Author
For more information on mortgages, and to contact an experienced mortgage broker, visit http://www.CanadianMortgagesInc.ca
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