Think Outside the Bun
Rob McLister, CMT
That is Taco Bell’s slogan. It’s meant to remind us that fast food doesn’t end with hamburgers. Tacos are pretty tasty in their own right.
In the lending world, the closest equivalent to “the bun” is the 5-year fixed mortgage. Like hamburgers are to fast food, the 5-year fixed is to mortgages. It’s been the most popular term in Canada for years.
Yet, despite its prevalence, qualified borrowers owe it to themselves to think outside the 5-year fixed. A little extra risk can sometimes yield a lot more reward.
Fixed 5-year mortgages are especially popular in uncertain/rising rate markets (like today’s). People who can’t afford rate risk, and those who cannot qualify for shorter terms, often choose a 5-year fixed by default.
Even individuals with rock-solid financial resources frequently gravitate to 5-year terms. Much of the time that’s because they don’t want to overthink the safety of a longer-term mortgage. In other cases, it’s because no one has ever shown them how much 5-year fixed terms really cost over the long run.
No matter how popular 5-year terms are, however, mortgages are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. For those who can stomach the chance of higher rates at renewal, various compelling alternatives exist. One happens to be the 3-year fixed.
At those rates, (from a purely mathematical and hypothetical perspective) the 3-year fixed performs better in our internal simulations than any other term, be it a variable or a 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 or 10-year fixed.1
With major banks forecasting a 2% rate hike in 24 months, 3-year fixed mortgages model even better than variable-rate mortgages (primarily because of the 3-year’s low rate and its 36 months of rate-hike protection).
This doesn’t mean a 3-year will definitely save you more money than any other term. It just means they offer very good value with decent odds of interest savings.
On a $300,000 mortgage with a 25-year amortization, a 3.35% three-year will save you about $5,130 over a 3.94% five-year fixed. That’s over 36 months.
After 36 months, you can move into any other term you want (e.g., a 1-year fixed, variable, or another 3-year fixed). As long as your rate at renewal is about 5% or less, you’ll come out ahead of today’s 5-year fixed.
A few other points about 3-year terms:
- You can make your 3-year fixed payment equal to a 5-year fixed payment, thus shrinking your amortization even faster.
- People tend to refinance 5-year terms roughly every 3.5 years on average. Three-year terms let people out without a penalty just before many of them are getting ready to renegotiate their mortgage.
The “optimal term” (if there is such a thing) changes as rates fluctuate and as borrowers’ finances change.
All things considered, however, the three-year fixed is the sweet spot of the mortgage market at this particular point in time.