Are you house rich or house poor?
Financial Post Jason Heath | 17/09/13
According to Statistics Canada, about one-quarter of Canadians are spending too much on housing costs. “Too much” is defined by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) as 30% or more of household income. Are you house rich and cash poor?
With time winding down to get in on some of the best mortgage rates in Canadian history, consumers pulled the trigger on purchases and in the process seemed to have turned around the housing market.
First off, it’s important to understand what CMHC’s “household income” refers to in order to measure if you are over or under the suggested 30% threshold. They define household income as pre-tax household income, which is a questionable metric due to our tax code.
We have a graduated tax system in Canada where every taxpayer files their own tax return, so there can be a big difference in after-tax income between two households with identical household incomes. A household where two people are earning $50,000 each in Ontario, for example, has after-tax income of about $75,840. A household where one person is earning $100,000 – the same gross income as the $50,000 times 2 household – has only $69,841 of after-tax income. That’s a difference of about 8%, so not immaterial.
What are “housing costs”? According to CMHC, these costs include rent and utilities for renters. For homeowners, included are mortgage payments, property taxes, condo fees and utilities.
Several factors are ignored by the 30% rule of thumb. What if a couple has two cars and they drive long distances to work, so transportation costs are higher than a couple with no cars? What if they have kids? They’re not cheap either.
As a financial planner, I can say a common topic of discussion with clients relates to their current house or their next one.
With young couples, they’re often wondering if they can afford their dream home – without breaking the bank. Taking on a bigger house and a bigger mortgage can limit other things which may or may not be important. Retirement savings might need to be scaled back, but what about living for today? Big mortgage payments might make a family think twice about a vacation they might otherwise enjoy (or need).
Not surprisingly, a lot of Baby Boomers are considering a downsize of their home. In some cases, it’s because people have more house than they need once the kids grow up and move out. In others, it’s because they live in an expensive city like Vancouver and a move outside the city can help pad retirement savings.
Either way, young or old, upsize or downsize, housing costs represent a large component of household spending and a large proportion of household net worth. It’s important to evaluate the pros and cons of moving up or cashing out.
One thing I always emphasize is that rules of thumb need to be taken with a grain of salt. They can be quite deceiving and lead people to make imprudent decisions. Just because a bank approves you for a mortgage, it doesn’t mean you’re wise to take it on. And just because CMHC suggests a 30% target for your housing costs as a proportion of your household income, it doesn’t necessarily constitute sound personal financial planning – especially when today’s interest rates and the resulting mortgage payments are artificially low.