Canadian real estate buyers are jumping in head first, since the recession didn’t impact housing. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, experts said no issues would be apparent until the end of the year. The reason is a term only finance and banking nerds have been using – the deferral cliff. The deferral cliff is the expiration of programs that bought distressed owners a few extra months. Until the deferral cliff arrives, we won’t see any of the problems in the housing market. Here’s when it’s coming, and when you should see an impact.
Mortgage Deferral Cliff
The mortgage deferral cliff is when payment deferral plans begin to expire. After the pandemic driven shutdown, Canadian and US governments scrambled to get banks to defer mortgage payments for the unemployed. Starting in April, people without income were allowed to delay payments for up to 6 months. This eliminated the spike in arrears we would normally see during a recession. It also happens to restrain inventory from hitting the market. As the six month deferral period ends, homeowners that aren’t back on their feet, are going to have to deal with their housing woes.
Industry experts warned mortgage deferrals give a false sense of security. Since people haven’t seen any defaults or distressed sales, moral hazard was created. That is, people now think housing markets have no risk. However, this is only temporary. As these deferrals expire, we approach the cliff. Once we get there, a significant number of people that haven’t got back on their feet will start to
Most Canadian Mortgage Payment Deferrals Will Expire In October
Since the longest deferrals are six months, we don’t really see any issues pop up until October. In October, about ~500,000 mortgages should expire. Followed by another 221,000 in November, and a big dip lower to 15,000 in December. There’s a mild bump higher with 24,000 in January, and February won’t be known until the cut off is reached next month.
Canadian Mortgage Deferral Cliff
The estimated number of expirations of payment deferrals for Canadian mortgages.Oct 2020Nov 2020Dec 2020Jan 20210100,000200,000300,000400,000500,000Mortgages
Source: Bank filings, Better Dwelling.
Now, don’t confuse the expiration of payment deferrals with a spike in arrears rates. It takes 90 days of non-payment for a mortgage to fall into arrears. This means October’s surge wouldn’t see any contribution to arrears until January. November would be in February, etc… That said, rising arrear rates depend on liquidity.
If you can’t afford your home, what’s the first thing you do? List it for sale. The inability to pay doesn’t always turn into defaults when there’s buyers. Instead, people list their homes for sale and hope it sells and closes before the lender tries to claim it. Unless you’re not all that smart, this is the first thing you would look to do. In which case, we should see a spike in inventory first.
How much does a “middle class” lifestyle cost in Toronto?
Condos in Toronto’s downtown core have become increasingly out of reach of most household budgets, skewing what it means to be “middle-class” in one of Canada’s hottest cities.
Speaking to the Daily Hive, Fong and Partners Inc. said that a “middle-class” one-child household living in a modest condo in the area will cost a family around $123,388 annually after taxes – an income level currently accessible to only the top 10% earners.
Even singles – who would need to make around $74,000 annually after taxes – will find it exceptionally difficult to sustain themselves in the downtown area: A one-bedroom condo with one parking spot in Toronto’s core will cost approximately $2,540 a month in mortgages alone.
Those who are counting on the long-term impact of coronavirus pandemic to moderate home price growth should abandon such notions, according to Victor Fong, president of Fong and Partners.
“This is because of the money-printing that is happening in the US, Europe, and Canada to battle the economic effects of COVID-19. Money printing causes inflation in asset markets such as real estate, which naturally increases prices,” Fong said.
Recent Royal LePage data supported Fong’s stance, with the national aggregate home price growing by 6.8% year over year during Q2 to reach $673,072.
“Home prices shot up in the second quarter as a crush of buyers entered the market, attracted by extremely low interest rates and the perception of bargains to be had,” said Phil Soper, president and CEO of Royal LePage. “Once provinces allowed regular real estate activity to resume, demand surged in many markets. Inventory levels, already constrained pre-pandemic, have failed to keep pace.”
Mortgage refinancing in Canada is the latest domino to topple in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on our economy.
In fact, all forms of mortgage financing have been increasingly more challenging the past several weeks. Fortunately, most purchase transactions already committed to during these early transition stages are still going through.
Refinances are another matter though. They are uninsurable, so the lending risk sits squarely with the lenders; whereas purchase transactions facilitate changes of ownership, and the associated mortgages are a necessary and essential part of that process. Mortgage refinances are arguably a non-essential process.
When people refinance their mortgage, it is quite simply to get to a better place financially. For some, it is to reduce the mortgage interest rate, lower the monthly payment, and extend the term. For others, it is to extract equity from the home, often for one of the following reasons:
consolidating high-cost consumer debt
combining a second and first mortgage
financing home renovation projects
funding post-secondary education
assisting with a down payment for children buying their first home
paying off a consumer proposal early
funds to pay CRA tax arrears
tapping into home equity to help children with the down payment or closing costs on their first home
Market uncertainties have rendered most of these more difficult than a month ago, and in some cases impossible.
Three Reasons Why Mortgage Refinances Are Tougher For Canadians
The other day one major chartered bank announced:
“In view of the ongoing COVID-19 situation, the following changes are being made to lending policies affecting new applications submitted to us on or after Thursday, April 9, 2020. These changes are required due to declining employment, energy sector impacts, unstable property values, and restrictions on appraisers being able to access properties for appraisal reports.”
But as a result of COVID-19, there are three main reasons why mortgage refinances have become much tougher for Canadians…
More Stringent Scrutiny of Applicants’ Income and Employment
Lower Appraisal Valuations Than Expected
Lender Cutbacks in Maximum Loan-to-Value Ratio
1. Tougher Scrutiny on Applicants’ Income and Employment
Lenders are understandably skittish about income stability in the current market. They aren’t just worried about whether you have sufficient income today, but also whether your employment is safe and you will continue to have an income in the months ahead.
Canada lost a record one million jobs in March 2020 according to BBC News, and you can expect more layoffs and job losses as the full impact of COVID-19 becomes known. The Conference Board of Canada said on April 6th that a combined 2.8 million jobs could be lost during March and April, equal to nearly 15% of total employment.
Even though many of these job losses may prove to be temporary, no one knows.
And if you are in the business of lending money to people, you are going to be looking very carefully at all applicants’ employment income – both for what it is now, and what it might become when the current stay-at-home policy runs well past the month of April, as many experts feel it will.
Prime Minister Trudeau said recently [there will be] “No return to ‘normality’ until a coronavirus vaccine is available.” And that might not be till 2021!
What this means is that even if you had sufficient income to qualify for the desired mortgage amount two months ago, that might not be the case now, and as such, lenders have become more conservative and risk averse.
Mortgage Lenders Now Want to See All Income Documents Upfront.
If the borrower’s income and employment cannot stand up to scrutiny, there is no point going further. Here is what lenders are saying right now:
One Chartered Bank Says:
For any application using self-employed (BFS) income, in addition to standard income documents, the broker must provide us with a description of the business, when established, number of employees, and its current status (e.g., operating, shut down).
Note: we may request additional income documents or conduct additional due diligence at our discretion to verify current income/employment status.
Additional due diligence will be required to assess the viability of the business post COVID-19. To assist in the assessment, please consider asking your client for their most recent financial reporting, i.e., interim tax reporting.
One Monoline Lender Says:
If a borrower has been laid off, we will not use their income to service the file unless an exception is granted by us and the mortgage insurer (if required). Neither EI nor the Government of Canada Emergency Response Benefit are eligible for inclusion in qualifying income.
As you would expect, if your applicants do not work in one of these essential service sectors, we will require additional confirmation of their employer’s commitment for continued pay during the COVID lockdown.
We will not utilize any temporary Canada Emergency Response Benefits in qualifying calculations.
2. Appraisal Valuations Are Coming In Lower Than Expected
Appraisers rely on recent sales data to come up with comparable properties for their appraisal reports. But sales are down so much since mid March there are fewer to compare to. As reported in the Globe and Mail, Carolyn Ireland on March 31, 2020, wrote:
“Ontario remains under a state of emergency, and while the provincial government deemed most of the real estate industry “essential,” it did so in order to permit transactions to close – not to allow the industry to carry on with business as usual.”
And there is no incentive for appraisers to go high on their estimates – in the teeth of so much pessimism and conservatism. I think we will start to see more and more transactions fall off the rails because of low appraisal values.
Anecdotally, I’m seeing behavioural changes among appraisers that will lead to more values coming in lower than would have been expected a short while ago.
For example, some appraisal values are being submitted with a low, medium and high value. The other day a colleague had a mortgage amount cut back with a major chartered bank. The low was $1.5 million; the medium value was $1.6 million and the high value was $1.7 million. The bank had to take the medium value and the loan was cut back by 130k.
And, Actual Resale Values Are Starting to Drop
Rob McLister over at RateSpy notes, “If HouseSigma is in the ballpark, median GTA home prices are sliding hard in April. It estimates the median GTA home value is down to $740,000. That’s a 6% drop from the February peak of $789,000. Of course, these are just estimates and the data for April is volatile and incomplete.
“A couple of my sellers are nervous that things are going to get worse, so they’re taking what they can get.”
The fact is listings are down dramatically, and there are no open houses anymore. Buying a home for many is a luxury to be deferred till things settle down.
So the net is, it appears appraisers are being more cautious today, and there is nothing on the horizon that’s likely to change this. No one knows how fast buying activity will pick up when the dust settles from COVID-19, so cautious valuations are probably the new normal.
3. Lower Loan-to-Value Ratio Lending Maximums
Before COVID-19, only private mortgage lenders could refinance higher than 80% of the appraised value of a property. It’s against the rules for institutional lenders. Mind you, there are not many brave souls who want to lend over 80% these days.
One small bank has quietly announced they will only refinance to 75% of the appraised value. And many B-lenders, on their own volition, have already cut their maximum loan to value (LTV) to 75%, and that is in densely populated urban areas.
Their maximum LTV is less in rural areas and smaller cities. This percentage will face further downward pressure in the coming months.
And right now, private lenders are also exercising more caution than usual, pulling back on their maximum LTV. The individual retail lender has already gotten cold feet and isn’t at all happy over 50% LTV. Mortgage Investment Corporations (MICs) remain open for business at decent LTVs, but many are expecting higher overall returns on their capital.
These lower loan-to-value ratios, coupled with declining appraisal values, are shrinking the number of fundable mortgage refinance transactions.
Is There a Bright Spot for Refinances?
There’s an old adage that lenders like to give loans to people that don’t need it. That is probably more true today than ever, including for refinances.
In the United States, mortgage rates have already begun to fall quickly, especially for terms of 10 and 15 years, and there is rising interest among many to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to refinance for a lower rate and radically reduce the remaining term of their mortgage. If you have sufficient equity that a light valuation doesn’t matter, and secure income, this could be a really great time to refinance.
This hasn’t happened yet in Canada, but could be the next phase for us as well. And, in general, if you have good enough income, have lived in your home for a while, and haven’t borrowed against your growth in equity, you may still be a good candidate for refinancing. (I’ll write more about this in a future article).
It’s a completely different world for mortgage refinancing than just a month ago.
Factoring together loss of income, lower real estate values, tougher appraisals, and lower loan-to-value ratios, it’s not hard to understand why the landscape for mortgage refinances has cooled considerably. Some refinances for specific types of borrowers will still be possible, but most of the typical cash-out deals we’ve seen for the last several years using home equity to solve debt problems, or large cash needs, are going to be fewer, and much harder to do.
Final word on this topic comes from respected industry veteran Ron Butler, who says, “Nothing will be the same for maybe the next two years. The old world of lending is gone.”
Terrio warned that this figure will noticeably increase in the very near future.
“I think 20% estimates will be drastically low if this drags on for months,” he said in an interview with BNN Bloomberg. “This [virus impact] is now drastically out of control.”
Declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization last March 11, the COVID-19 virus has ground global markets to a standstill, with economies currently on freefall.
As of press time, more than 225,000 cases have been reported in over 150 nations. Jobs markets have suffered as governments worldwide mandated various restrictions, including social distancing and work stoppages.
The possibility of lower, or even zero, income has especially dire implications upon Canadian tenants, Terrio stated.
“Renters who lose their jobs are going to be in big trouble [in major centres]” he explained. “This is going to lead to huge increases in insolvencies, it’s just a matter of when.”
“I’m hoping [the government is] aiming more funds at people who don’t own homes. If 93% of people filing insolvencies are renters, there better be support for renters,” Terrio added.
“Once people lose their jobs and absorb what happened, this is going to be crazy. Could be summer, could be early fall. But I think it will happen within six months, and I think it’s going to be way more than we thought.”
“American families are finding themselves trapped in cycles of debt, simply for trying to afford basic needs like healthcare and education.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley says she is “thrilled” that the House of Representatives passed her bill to reform the credit report system, though the legislation’s future in the Senate is unclear.
The House approved the Comprehensive Credit Reporting Enhancement, Disclosure, Innovation, and Transparency (CREDIT) Act on a mostly party-line vote Wednesday afternoon.
Pressley — who has championed often-arcanefinancial reform bills during her first term in Congress — says the legislation would address a “fundamentally flawed” system that can impede upward economic mobility in a country where “our credit reports are our reputations.”
“When credit reports determine where you can live, work and how much you will have to pay for everything from a car to a college degree, consumers deserve a system that ensures equity, transparency and accountability,” the Massachusetts congresswoman said in a statement. “American families are finding themselves trapped in cycles of debt, simply for trying to afford basic needs like healthcare and education.”
The Comprehensive CREDIT Act includes measures to make it easier for the estimated 20 percent of consumers who have a “potentially material error” on their credit report to seek corrections; limit the use of credit scores for employment purposes; expand the opportunity for student loan borrowers to improve their credit scores; restore credit to victims of predatory agencies; ban the reporting of debt incurred from “medically necessary procedures” and delay the reporting of other medical debt; shorten the time that most adverse credit information stays on a report from seven years to four years, and from 10 years to seven years in the case of a bankruptcy; and bolster the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s oversight of the industry.
According to CFPB data, the watchdog agency has received more than 326,000 complaints against credit reporting agencies since 2012, which accounts for nearly 22 percent of the total complaints filed during that time period.
According to Pressley’s office, the Comprehensive CREDIT Act comprises tenets of several other bills introduced by fellow members of the House Financial Services Committee. However, the Boston Democrat authored the student loan-focused section of the bill, which would:
Establish a credit rehabilitation process overseen by the CFPB for borrowers facing economic hardship to repair their credit profile.
Prohibit credit reporting agencies from including any information on a credit report relating to a delinquent or defaulted student loan after the borrower makes nine on-time monthly payments.
Provide a grace period for borrowers seeking rehabilitation but experiencing significant financial hardship or other extenuating circumstances such as certain military deployments or residing in an area impacted by a major disaster.
Require private lenders offering repayment plans to borrowers seeking rehabilitation to offer affordable monthly payments and additional assistance.
Student debt has become an increasing burden for students in Massachusetts. A study in 2018 found that the average debt load for Bay State graduates increased by 77 percent between 2004 and 2016, faster than in any other state in the country except Delaware. According to Pressley’s office, more than 855,000 borrowers owed a total of $33.3 billion in student debt last year in Massachusetts — and nearly 100,000 are behind on their loans.
“Even if we wipe out all student debt tomorrow, the devastating impact on consumers’ credit would remain for years to come,” Pressley said in her speech. “For that very reason, we must give folks a real chance at recovery and repair.”
The bill passed the Democrat-controlled House by a 221-to-189 margin. With the exception of two moderate Democrats who joined Republicans to vote against the legislation, the vote was divided by party lines.
For the legislation to proceed any further, Democrats will likely have to wait until at least another election. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican-controlled Senate’s majority leader, has repeatedly ignored the hundreds of bills passed by House Democrats.
Massachusetts state lawmakers have also recently proposed new protections for student borrowers in the wake of relaxed federal oversight under President Donald Trump.
It was his fourth in 10 years, during which time he had relied on Canada’s insolvency system to rid him of more than $100,000 in debts.
This time, the buck was going to stop. The judge overseeing the case had had enough. Nantel, she ruled, did not deserve yet another fresh start.
“He’s shown no reluctance of using bankruptcy to be freed from his debts,” the judge, known as a registrar, wrote in a 2012 decision. “His past conduct demonstrates a contempt for the rights of his creditors.”
Discharging Nantel of his fourth bankruptcy — liberating him of the debt that led him into insolvency — would undermine the integrity of Canada’s bankruptcy system, the registrar said. She denied his application.
Nantel, who refused to comment for this article, persisted.
Four years after the 2012 ruling, Nantel, now working as a mechanic and living 120 kilometres east of Montreal, went before a different registrar and received a discharge from that same bankruptcy.
And eight days after that, he declared bankruptcy for a fifth time, owing more than $37,000 in new debts.
Nantel is one of a staggering number of Canadians who are washing themselves of their debt by re-using a bankruptcy system meant to rehabilitate honest but unfortunate debtors, a joint investigation by the Toronto Star and La Presse has found.
Bankruptcy system insiders and observers are surprised at the magnitude of the nationwide problem revealed in the investigation’s data analysis.
One in five Canadians who filed bankruptcy in 2018 was doing it for at least the second time. That works out to 11,500 debtors who filed their second, third, fourth or even fifth bankruptcy, according to data obtained from the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy.
“One fifth-time bankrupt is probably one too many,” said Thomas Telfer, a law professor at Western University who has authored the country’s most detailed research on repeat bankruptcies.
“It shows that the bankrupt has not received the message.”
In cases of repeat bankruptcies, the courts have said focus is expected to shift from rehabilitating a debtor to protecting the public and the system from being abused.
Yet, despite the courts’ stern rhetoric, government data shows the vast majority of completed proceedings end with the person released from their debts.
The Star and La Presse have interviewed dozens of debtors and insolvency experts, including the trustees that administer bankruptcies and retired court registrars who previously presided over bankruptcy cases.
Many repeat bankrupts are people marred by bad luck, their lives sideswiped by job loss, divorce, illness or other tragedies that catapulted them back into insolvency.
Others, however, rack up the same kinds of debt over and over, then turn to bankruptcy for what the courts have called a “fiscal car wash.”
“In some segments of society, it’s become almost a game. People take advantage of the system and they take advantage of the leniency of the registrars,” said Yoine Goldstein, a retired Canadian senator and lawyer who led a task force advising the government on potential reforms to Canada’s insolvency laws.
Unpaid taxes owed by repeat bankrupts make up a portion of the nearly $4 billion the Canada Revenue Agency has written off since 2009 because of consumer and commercial insolvencies. In Quebec, the provincial tax agency has lost nearly $2 billion to insolvencies in the last five years alone.
Meanwhile, credit card lenders absorb the cost of bankrupts who do not pay their bills by charging high interest rates to their customers who do pay their debts.
The Star/La Presse investigation has also found the problem of repeat bankruptcies is greater in Quebec, home to an overwhelming number of the country’s third-, fourth- and fifth-time bankrupts.
In some cases, such as Nantel’s, four- and five-time bankrupts have shed their debt more quickly and easily than had it been their second bankruptcy.
When a person declares bankruptcy, a trustee sells whatever assets are available and distributes the proceeds to creditors (some assets, such as clothing and registered retirement savings that are more than one year old, are protected).
In some cases, when the bankrupt’s income exceeds what a government formula deems necessary to maintain a reasonable standard of living, the debtor must make “surplus income” payments, increasing the amount of money creditors recoup.
The bankruptcy is over when the person gets discharged — a release from the legal obligation to pay back what was owed, though it does not cover certain debts such as child support or alimony.
Unless someone such as a creditor opposes, a first bankruptcy is automatically discharged in nine months or 21 months. The second bankruptcy can be automatically discharged in two years or three years.
Subsequent bankruptcies go to court, where the judge can grant a discharge or refuse it. If granted, the discharge is completed after a delay, known as a suspension, or with conditions, such as the debtor having to prove he is up to date with his taxes. Often, a discharge comes with both a suspension and conditions.
Although the total number of consumer bankruptcies is going down year over year, the percentage that are repeat bankrupts has steadily climbed.
Third-time bankrupts have become common in some provinces. Fourth and fifth bankruptcies, once almost unheard of, are now “a scourge,” registrars have said, and “a clarion call to systemic integrity and to the court’s role in it.”
Repeat bankrupts include real-estate agents, roofers, restaurateurs, tax lawyers and drywallers.
With each bankruptcy, they are required to take two financial counselling sessions. Some debtors, however, take away the wrong lesson.
“They go through bankruptcy and they learn, frankly, how easy it is and how forgiving it is. Then think, ‘Gosh, why don’t I do it again?’ ” said John Owen, whose previous business helped credit lenders pursue claims against insolvent consumers.
Owen testified in 2003 before a Senate committee reviewing Canadian insolvency laws, and he warned of the country’s disproportionately high rate of repeat bankruptcies.
At that time, about 10 per cent of bankruptcies filed were repeats. That rate has now doubled.
“There’s a cost to it. No question. There is a societal cost,” he said.
It’s unknown how much lost tax revenue can be attributed to repeat bankruptcies. One thing, however, is clear: The government, sometimes, only recoups pennies on the dollar, if it gets anything at all.
Three-time bankrupt Jacques Bélanger has racked up mountains of tax debt to the CRA and Revenue Quebec. After the Laval man’s meagre assets were picked over in his most recent bankruptcy, filed in 2014, the CRA, owed more than $101,500, received just $59.20 — less than Belanger spent a month on cigarettes.
“I want to make clear that I never exploited the system. I was just unlucky,” Bélanger said in an interview.
There are few debts more important than the payment of taxes by those enjoying a good income, said registrar Nathalie Champagne in 2017 when faced with Charles Rotenberg, a former Ottawa tax lawyer. Rotenberg, who surrendered his licence after the law society found he misappropriated a client’s funds, was on his third bankruptcy, this latest leading the CRA to write off $313,000. “The Bankrupt before me has enjoyed a good income and he has not paid his fair share of taxes which is unfair to the rest of the tax-paying public.” She refused his discharge.
Rotenberg travels every year and lives in a five-bedroom house bought by his wife and works as a consultant, Champagne noted in her decision, adding “his life and lifestyle have been seemingly unhampered by his third bankruptcy.”
Rotenberg told the Star he drives a Honda. The other car in the driveway, a dark grey 2018 Cadillac sedan, is registered to his wife, vehicle records show. He said that when he travels, it is to visit family. The money that the law society found he misappropriated has been paid back, he said. His consultancy’s website says he helps clients with “Dispute resolution with the Canada Revenue Agency.”
Rotenberg said he assumed substantial liabilities from a business partner who had been managing the books which, coupled with serious health problems, left Rotenberg unable to work and continue to pay creditors and led to his third bankruptcy. He said the court will not let him re-apply for his discharge until 2021.
The courts can refuse a discharge when the debtors’ behaviour has been particularly reprehensible.
In 2015, a Quebec court decided it was the best way to handle the fifth bankruptcy of Stéphane Flynn. In an interview, Flynn blamed his bankruptcy on runaway costs in his construction business and clients who didn’t pay on time. In reviewing the case, the judge saw a man with more than $500,000 in debts who treated bankruptcy as a way to escape his debts.
“It is extraordinary that he has been allowed to do so multiple times without opposition to his release,” registrar David Cousineau wrote in his decision to refuse Flynn’s discharge.
Except it was not extraordinary. Discharge has become routine for repeat bankruptcies.
Of the 395 proceedings involving fourth- and fifth-time bankruptcies that were completed between 2011 and 2018, just 21 resulted in a discharge being refused, according to federal data. That’s five per cent.
In every other case, registrars gave a conditional or suspended discharge. (The majority of fourth- and fifth-time bankruptcies filed during these years have not yet had a discharge ruling, according to the data).
The willingness to grant discharges marks a notable shift from how courts historically treated repeat bankruptcies, their decisions guided by an often-quoted judgment that a “third bankruptcy is one too many.”
“Third-time bankruptcies are of grave concern, often demonstrating a degree of irresponsibility that justifies simply refusing a discharge,” Manitoba Justice Colleen Suche said in 2012 in upholding a decision to deny a three-time bankrupt a release, forcing him to re-apply in a year.
Michael Bray, a retired registrar in New Brunswick who presided over insolvency hearings from 1999 to 2013, said the stigma surrounding bankruptcy has diminished. He said stiff sanctions can be used to dissuade a debtor from returning to insolvency.
“It used to be that most people that came for their first-time bankruptcy…a lot of them never wanted to be here again. I think that feeling is gone now,” he said.
“If the courts don’t impose a good sanction, then it’s not difficult to be a three-, four- or five- (time bankrupt).”
Canada’s Superintendent of Bankruptcy, whose office regulates and supervises the insolvency system, would not be interviewed for this article.
In written answers, her office said insolvency laws contain “safeguards against potential abuse,” and the decision to discharge a debtor with three- or more- bankruptcies is a matter of judicial discretion based on the circumstances of each case.
Some trustees say the court’s shift stems from repeat bankruptcies becoming more common and, as their shock value dissipates, registrars are growing more sympathetic to how financially tenuous many Canadians have become.
Another theory is that registrars, aware that creditors almost never attend court to oppose discharges, are asking: If the people owed money don’t care enough to be here, why should I dole out a harsh penalty?
“That was the frustrating part of that job. You’re supposed to be somewhat of a gatekeeper but no one is complaining,” said Scott Nettie, a registrar in Toronto bankruptcy court from 2005 to 2012 with a reputation of coming down hard on debtors who misused the system.
“I know there are registrars across the country who, in those situations where no one is there (opposing discharge) and no one is complaining, they’re like, ‘go forth and sin no more,’ ” Nettie said. “Then there are others, and I was one of these, who struggled with: ‘But it’s not right.’ ”
Among the least engaged creditors, according to Nettie and other trustees and registrars, are credit card companies.
Credit lenders rarely oppose a discharge and once discharged, many repeat bankrupts have little trouble securing more credit.
A Nova Scotia man filing his fifth bankruptcy had amassed more than $20,000 in credit card debt, even though two of his earlier bankruptcies remained on his credit report. A businessman from Collingwood, Ontario, had 10 cards in his wallet and owed more than $64,000 when he filed his third bankruptcy in 2014.
Those credit card companies may only recover a portion of what they’re owed.
“They don’t care,” said Nettie. “They’ve already costed the price of losing that part of the business completely into what they charge the rest of the paying customers. Why would they pay good money after bad to pay someone to come (to oppose in court).”
A spokesperson from the Canadian Bankers Association said the country’s banks are prudent lenders that only offer credit to borrowers they believe can and will repay the loan.
Losing money to a four-time bankrupt was not something Dieter Gauger could easily absorb. In 2013, Gauger, a retired millwright, and his wife Edith hired a Hamilton contractor to renovate their Stoney Creek townhouse.
The contract said the work would cost $65,000. But after collecting $60,000, the contractor, Stephen Monahan, left the house unfinished and unliveable, Dieter said. The Gaugers drained thousands from their retirement savings to pay someone else to complete the renovations while they stayed in a Super 8 Motel. The Gaugers took Monahan to court, where in 2015, they got a default judgment for nearly $36,400.
But Gauger does not expect to see any of that.
Two months after the court order, Monahan filed for bankruptcy, his fourth. Described by one registrar as “a menace to credit system,” Monahan told the court his first three bankruptcies were his own fault, the consequences of poorly managing his business. His latest, with nearly $93,000 in debts, was the result of cancer, he said. He said his prognosis is grim.
“I’m very sorry to the people I owe money to and I’m sorry for my failures,” he told the court at his October hearing. Citing his poor health, the court issued Monahan a suspended discharge. He can be free of the debts as early as summer 2020, as long as he pays roughly $1,600 in outstanding administration costs.
For Gauger, it doesn’t feel just.
“I lost $36,000,” the 76-year-old Gauger said. “The system worked for Monahan but not for me.”
The problem of repeat bankruptcies is particularly prominent in Canada’s eastern provinces.
Since 2011, Nova Scotia has had the most repeat bankruptcies per capita in the country with 75 for every 100,000 residents — more than double the national average.
The high rates are likely fueled by a combination of low wages, an unstable job market and a high cost of living, especially in places like Cape Breton, said Rob Hunt, a trustee with Grant Thornton based in Nova Scotia.
“We find people have then relied on credit to bridge their income,” he said. “People finally get to the boiling point where they’ve exhausted their credit and they can’t afford to keep making the monthly payments.”
More than half of the roughly 9,360 Canadians who filed their third bankruptcy between 2011 and 2018 lived in Quebec. For fourth-time bankruptcies, Quebec’s portion climbs to 74 per cent.
And of the 88 Canadians who declared bankruptcy for a fifth time, almost all of them — 90 percent — lived in Quebec.
Insolvency experts within Quebec say they are stunned by the numbers but offer a variety of possible reasons.
Quebec is the only province going back to the late 1980s that has consistently had higher rates of consumer bankruptcy per capita than the national average.
The province has among the lowest rates of disposable income per resident in the country, which could mean fewer Quebec debtors can afford to settle their debts through scheduled payments under a consumer proposal and instead opt for bankruptcy. A consumer proposal, another form of insolvency, is a settlement in which a debtor repays a percentage of what is owed and is an alternative to bankruptcy.
Research has found French-speaking Canadians scored lower on financial literacy than their English counterparts.
The Quebec numbers are also partially due to inconsistencies in the sanctions imposed on bankrupts from courthouse to courthouse and province to province.
How it is supposed to work is spelled out in the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act. A first-time bankrupt will be automatically discharged after nine or 21 months, unless there is opposition. Changes introduced in 2009 allow for automatic discharges for unopposed second bankruptcies with a waiting time of two or three years. Subsequent bankruptcies must go to court where a judge decides on sanctions.
This is where the system’s consistency unspools.
In Toronto, trustees say the court will postpone the discharge hearing of a third-time bankrupt for at least three years, then delay a discharge for another nine or 12 months.
“The court is of the opinion that a third-time bankrupt shouldn’t be able to get out faster than a second-time bankrupt,” said trustee Mark Morgan from David Sklar & Associates.
But that’s not how it works across the country. In 2018, a labourer living in small-town Quebec was discharged from her third bankruptcy just two years after she filed it. A year later, she again declared insolvency, this time filing a consumer proposal.
Consumer proposals have overtaken bankruptcies as a preferred way to handle debt, particularly in provinces such as Ontario. However, the federal government says it does not track repeat proposals, meaning the rate of repeat insolvencies may be much higher than the data suggests.
The government’s 2009 changes also inadvertently softened oversight, shielding debtors from the scrutiny of the courts until they arrive before it for a third time, according to some trustees and one former registrar.
“This may signal that going bankrupt twice is not as serious as it is. This may be in part what’s led to an increase in recidivism,” Morgan said.
Joseph Cloutier is a 48-year-old drywaller in Toronto who, at his peak, could bring in $4,000 a week. But he never put money aside for taxes. When he filed his first bankruptcy in 2008, he owed the CRA $22,000; during his second, in 2011, he owed $60,000. He received automatic discharges both times.
In 2016, Cloutier again filed for bankruptcy. His CRA debt: $124,000.
“I’m terrible at managing money. I’ve been terrible all my life,” Cloutier said. “I’m one of these people with an addictive personality. If you’re going to give me a million dollars, I’ll spend it all by next week.”
In November, a Toronto court ruled that Cloutier could be discharged from his third bankruptcy in 15 months with conditions, including that he first pay the CRA debt that had been mounting since he filed his latest bankruptcy.
Law professor Thomas Telfer said the law should be tightened so cases like this, in which a second bankruptcy is filed within three years of the first one being discharged, do not qualify for automatic discharge. Instead, the debtor would go to court where a registrar can determine whether the debtor is honest but unfortunate or abusing the system.
A decade ago, trustee Mark Morgan co-wrote an article about “the revolving door of bankruptcy” and the rising rates of recidivism. Still, he says it “blows his mind” to learn from the Star and La Presse that 88 Canadians have declared bankruptcy five times since 2011.
“It shouldn’t be that easy,” Morgan said. “They’re basically thumbing their noses at the system. I know you can’t do anything to me because you haven’t the first, second, third or fourth time.”
His article outlined strategies to stem what he saw as a growing problem. They included more financial education for youth and new Canadians, more consistent sanctions and expanded counselling, as the two sessions required under the Act aren’t enough to fix “a lifetime of bad” financial behaviour, he said.
“Recidivism will continue to be a problem as long as society, creditors, the courts and the insolvency community allow it to be,” Morgan warned.
In May 2016, seven years after Morgan’s call to action, Kenneth Nantel was again seeking to get liberated from more debt.
It was Nantel’s fifth bankruptcy in 16 years, filed just eight days after he was discharged from his fourth. Much of the $37,000 he owed was to the government, and he blamed his money problems on a loss of income.
He was earning roughly $3,300 a month as a mechanic, enough for him to make surplus income payments to increase the amount of money his creditors would receive.
“If it was his second bankruptcy, the debtor would have to pay a total of $17,748 over 36 months,” Nantel’s trustee noted in his submissions.
Even though it was his fifth bankruptcy, the registrar ordered Nantel to pay only $5,916.
When reached by phone, Nantel refused to comment. “I’m not really interested in talking about what happened in the past,” he said before hanging up.
Nantel can be discharged from his fifth bankruptcy as early as September 2020.
Source: Toronto Star – JESSE MCLEANDECEMBER 09, 2019
This investigation was done in partnership with Katia Gagnon and Marie-Eve Fournier of La Presse.Data analysis by Andrew Bailey.With reporting contributions from Bryan Meler and Jaye Williams of the Ryerson School of Journalism
After you file a consumer proposal, the last thing on your mind might be a new mortgage, but you may be a lot closer than you think.
Maybe you wish to buy a home, or you own a home and are interested in refinancing your mortgage. Let’s first talk about purchasing a home.
When Can You Buy A Home After A Consumer Proposal?
Actually, this question comes up often. People want to know how soon can they buy. Sometimes they ask right after they file their consumer proposal, and other times it’s more than five years later, after they’ve paid it off in full.
First things first: pay off your consumer proposal completely before you take on major new mortgage debt.
If you have at least a 20% down payment, you may even be able to buy as soon as you complete your consumer proposal! As in, immediately.
You will almost always be working with either a B-lender or a private lender, but it is doable. But it’s more than just a matter of having finished your consumer proposal. Make sure you have been rebuilding your personal credit history—with new credit facilities and by cleaning up reporting errors. (There are ALWAYS reporting errors after you file a consumer proposal)
If you have less than 20% down payment, you will be looking for a high-ratio mortgage, which has default insurance, from one of CMHC, Genworth or Canada Guaranty.
In that case, you will need at least two years of clean, new credit since you completed your consumer proposal. But it’s best if you have at least two tradelines (credit card, loan, line of credit, etc.) with limits greater than $2,000.
Worst case scenario, three years after you completed your proposal, or six years after you filed your proposal (whichever comes first) it will fall off your credit report and whether or not you qualify for a mortgage to purchase a home will depend on the usual mortgage qualification criteria we all face.
When Can You Refinance Your Home After A Consumer Proposal?
This, too, can happen very quickly—in fact, we have helped numerous homeowners refinance their homes so they could complete their consumer proposal early. In some cases, it was as soon as the terms of their proposal were ratified in court.
This is what we call a lump-sum consumer proposal, and can be a very attractive way to settle your debts if you are a homeowner.
Should You Pay Off Your Consumer Proposal When You Refinance?
Actually, there are a few private lenders who will allow you to leave your proposal unpaid while you extract equity from your home. But unless there are specific, logical reasons to doing this, it’s not something I recommend.
I prefer refinancing to completely pay off the remaining balance owing on the consumer proposal. There may also be other things you need money for at the same time—like a home improvement project or a child’s higher education, or other family debts.
CRA debt crops up quite a lot too, particularly for those who are self-employed. You can take care of all these at the same time, provided you pay off the consumer proposal.
Why Would You Pay off Your Consumer Proposal Early?
1) Fear of the mortgage renewal. This concern is very real if your mortgage lender had a credit card or loan product included in your consumer proposal. They might have no interest in offering you a renewal when your current mortgage matures. So, you need to get in front of this issue as soon as you can, if your situation allows for it.
2) A strong desire to rebuild your personal credit history. Once you file your CP, your credit score is going to take a major beating. All debts included in the proposal will be reporting as R7s on your personal credit report.
Worse than that, some of them will be erroneously reporting as R9s—written off completely.
And some credit cards may say they were included in a bankruptcy, even though that is not true.
A few credit cards even report ongoing late payments after the proposal was filed. And sometimes even after the proposal is completed!
If you want to fix the damage to your personal credit report resulting from your consumer proposal, you are going to have to wait until it is paid in full and you have a completion certificate from your trustee. Here is additional information on rebuilding credit after a consumer proposal.
3) Wish to be normal. When you have bad credit, everything in life seems tougher and more expensive. Even if you wish to rent a home, not buy one, the landlord will usually ask for a copy of your credit report.
And if you want a new smartphone, or lease or finance a new car, bad credit will make all this that much harder.
If you allow your consumer proposal to run the full five years, that means it could be in your credit history six years altogether. It falls off three years after you complete, so keep that in mind. You can significantly shorten the waiting time by paying the consumer proposal off early.
4) Improve cash flow. In nearly all cases when we refinance a home where the owner is paying off a consumer proposal, they see an improvement in their monthly cash outflows. In a society where half of us are living paycheque to paycheque, this is attractive.
How Do You Refinance To Pay Off A Consumer Proposal?
First, your mortgage broker will do a thorough assessment of whether or not this is even doable. S/he will assess the marketability of your property, the amount of untapped equity, the reasons behind you filing your consumer proposal, as well as all the normal stuff lenders look at when reviewing a mortgage application.
An important consideration is your current first mortgage. Was it just renewed, or is it nearing maturity? Which lender is it with, and what might the prepayment penalty be if you were to break it and refinance to a new first mortgage with a B-lender?
Another consideration is whether or not your first mortgage is registered as a collateral charge, and if so, to what amount is it registered? We wrote about this a few months ago— it can make things difficult.
If refinancing the current mortgage makes sense, your broker will present your application and a presentation to the B-lenders most likely to entertain a file like yours. And s/he will bring back quotes for your consideration. If you choose to proceed, most of the time the entire process can be wrapped up in four to six weeks.
We actually see that happen less often than the other approach,which is to first apply for a private second mortgage.
In this scenario, the first mortgage is left intact and a new lender is found who will lend enough money to cover the proposal balance, any other debts and needs, and all the expenses associated with the mortgage.
During the term of the second mortgage (usually one year), we take the opportunity to cleanse all the reporting errors from the credit report, and also to strengthen the borrower’s credit profile with new healthy credit.
After a year, (longer if that makes sense) we then refinance the two mortgages into a single first mortgage.
It would be normal to expect this new replacement mortgage to be with a B-lender, since the consumer proposal is still fairly fresh. Here are some insights into how to do this.
Ultimately, the goal is to take the homeowners back to the world of A-lenders. That is usually possible after three years, but we have seen instances where it happened much sooner.
But it was never going to happen if the clients didn’t first make the decision to pay off the consumer proposal ahead of schedule.
Not all consumer debt is bad but it’s wise to be cautious: expert
Increasing the amount of consumer debt isn’t necessarily bad as long as it’s affordable, according to Matt Fabian, director, research and industry analysis, at credit research company TransUnion.
TransUnion studies Canadian debt and produces a report every quarter. Their latest report is for the second quarter, ending June 30. In an interview, Fabian said the study is providing an overview of debt in relation to how fast income rates are rising and household net worth is increasing.
“Our study this quarter suggests that Canadians are still increasing their debt, up 3.9 per cent in the second quarter, compared to the same quarter a year ago,” he said.
“A couple of things that we note are, although debt continued to go up, the rate with which it increased has started to slow for the past couple of quarters, when you compare it annually,” said Fabian.
“It might be too early to say we’re at … an inflection point but the combination of interest rates increasing and some economic uncertainty in different regions of Canada are giving people pause and maybe they may not be accumulating as much debt as they were, at the rate they were,” he said.
There is some good news coming from the Atlantic region, Fabian said of the quarterly study.
Although the economy can be volatile in the Atlantic region, he said, TransUnion sees provinces like Nova Scotia performing much better than the national average.
The average non-mortgage consumer debt in Nova Scotia is about $28,400 and only went up about 1.24 per cent on a year-over-year basis, said Fabian. New Brunswick is similar, even slightly less, at $27,300 and it went up about 2.37 per cent. Prince Edward Island had average non-mortgage consumer debt of $28,426, which is up 2.16 per cent in the second quarter, compared to the same quarter in 2017.
Newfoundland and Labrador came in under the national average in the second quarter as well, he said, with average non-mortgage consumer debt landing at $30,169, up 2.16 per cent when compared to the second quarter of 2017.
Generally, the Atlantic provinces are well below the national average non-mortgage debt, which increased by 3.87 per cent in the second quarter, said Fabian. From a delinquency perspective, however, the region scored “a little bit higher” than the second quarter national average of 5.33 per cent.
New Brunswick’s consumer delinquency rates on non-mortgage debt in the second quarter – 90 days past due – was 8.37 per cent, the highest in the region.
According to TransUnion, Newfoundland and Labrador’s consumer delinquency rate was 6.88 per cent, Nova Scotia’s delinquencies were 6.87 per cent and P.E.I. had a consumer delinquency rate in the second quarter of 5.74 per cent.
“Newfoundland (delinquency rate) trended up .32 per cent while Nova Scotia went down about 0.7 per cent,” Fabian said. “Halifax among the major cities has amongst the lowest consumer debt, about $26,000, and it was the only major city in Canada that had negative consumer debt growth (in the second quarter).”
When one takes into context growing household net worth consumer debt is not necessarily a bad thing, Fabian said. “I think the fact that delinquency rates are a little bit higher might be a little bit concerning from a risk perspective but they’re not way out of whack and delinquency rates tend to have a long tail. So, some of the Atlantic provinces for sure are coming out of a little bit of a slump economically and it takes, sometimes, 12 to 24 months to manifest itself in delinquency rates.”
Fabian said as the economy bounces back it leads to jobs and increased salaries, so it seems reasonable to be optimistic about the debt situation.
“We tell people, generally, there’s two things to keep in mind. Understand how much you can afford. So, from a delinquency perspective there’s the notion of stress testing and you should kind of stress test yourself.
“When you’re looking to take out debt or increasing your credit card payments, by putting something on your credit card or taking out a line of credit for a renovation, or whatever it might be, don’t just consider the position you’re in right now and say, ‘Yeah, I can afford that $300 monthly payment.’ But kind of consider your cash flow and maybe, take into account your circumstance to say: ‘Could I cover that payment in the event that I lose my job.’ Or, ‘Can I cover that payment for three months while I’m looking for another job.’ This is what we call … stress testing yourself to see if you can absorb that shock should there be some unforeseen event.”
By taking a realistic view of debt and one’s ability to manage it, Fabian says it will provide a little bit of comfort for an individual to realize they really are comfortable taking on some additional debt, he said.
“From a balance perspective, as long as you feel like you can take that on, I don’t know if taking on credit debt is necessarily a bad thing, it depends on what you’re doing it for. If it’s a mortgage or a line of credit to renovate your home or something like to improve the value of an asset or property for investing then that might be a good use of your debt. If it’s to buy new shoes or go on a vacation because you just want to, might not be the best use of your debt,” Fabian concluded.
Source: Cape Breton Post – Roger Taylor Published: Sep 24, 2018 at 3:34 p.m.
3 million Canadians have home equity lines of credit, but half of us don’t know how they work
A survey suggests 35 per cent of Canadians have a home equity line of credit and 19 per cent said they’d borrowed more than they intended. (Canadian Press)
Over the past 15 years, home equity lines of credit have emerged as the driver of mounting non-mortgage debt in Canada — yet many Canadians don’t understand what they’ve signed up for and are not moving to pay them off, a new survey suggests.
The more than three million Canadians holding a HELOC owed an average amount of $65,000, the study released Tuesday by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) found. About one quarter of HELOC holders had a balance of more than $150,000.
Yet 25 per cent of respondents said they only made the interest payments month to month.
Ipsos conducted the online survey of 4,800 Canadians, most of them homeowners, from June 5-28, 2018, on behalf FCAC, a federal agency that promotes financial education.
HELOCs are revolving credit products secured against the equity in a home. Banks can lend up to 65 per cent of the value of a home. Such lines of credit have been easy to get and banks offer them as a default credit option to anyone with home equity.
Of the homeowners surveyed, 54 per cent had a mortgage and 35 per cent had a HELOC.
Cheap source of credit
“You can’t deny the fact that for the consumer it is a cheap source of credit. However, you have to use it well,” said Michael Toope, communications strategist for FCAC.
The problem is that people borrow more than they intended and end up struggling with the debt, he said.
The survey suggested there is a lack of understanding among consumers of how these lines of credit work.
Only half of respondents knew basic facts about the terms of HELOCs, such as:
Banks can raise the rate of a HELOC at any time.
The bank can demand the balance of a HELOC at any time.
There are fees to transfer a HELOC to another institution.
The bank can raise or lower the credit limit on a HELOC.
Interest rates began climbing in 2017 and 2018 and are likely to rise further this year. That affects the interest cost of these loans and the overall cost of paying them off. Your HELOC is more expensive than a mortgage as the interest rate is higher.
“Each bank sets its own prime rate based on the Bank of Canada rate and HELOCs are usually set at prime plus a premium, but the bank can change that premium at their discretion,” Toope said.
For some, HELOCs are risky
Almost two-thirds of respondents said they used their HELOC only or mostly as intended, as a revolving line of credit.
Yet for some, HELOCs are a risky product that eats away at their ability to build wealth, Toope said.
The equity they build in their home as they pay off a mortgage is a way for Canadians to build wealth over time, but that won’t happen if they have a debt secured by the house.
“In the end, you’re losing the long-term value of the mortgage you have in your home,” Toope said.
In a 2017 report, FCAC found home equity lines of credit may be putting some Canadians at risk of over-borrowing.
That report found most consumers do not repay their HELOC in full until they sell their home.
About 19 per cent of respondents to the new survey said they’d borrowed more than they intended.
How much do I owe?
And 18 per cent said they did not know the full balance on their HELOC.
Among those who paid only the interest on the debt, the majority were young Canadians, aged 25 to 34. That’s not unusual, as people at that stage of life tend to have lower incomes and may be burdened with student debt as well as a mortgage, but it still indicates a lack of understanding, Toope said.
About half of respondents said they used their HELOC for a renovation, but another 22 per cent consolidated other debt. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)
The survey found 62 per cent of those who paid only the interest expected to repay their HELOC in full within five years, a plan Toope called a “mathematical impossibility.”
Half of Canadians borrowed against their HELOCs for renovations, but another 22 per cent dipped into it for debt consolidation, with vehicle purchases and daily expenses also common uses, according to the survey.
“People should know what they are going to use it for and how to pay it down, so it doesn’t become an eternal revolving debt,” Toope said.
How long does it take to improve your credit score? If you’re hoping to buy a home, having a good credit score is key, since it helps you qualify for a mortgage. So if your credit score is low, knowing how long it takes to raise it to home-buying range can help you plan.
While raising a credit score can’t happen overnight, it is possible to raise your credit score within one to two months. However, it could take longer, depending on what’s dragging down your score—and how you handle it. Here’s what you need to know.
How long does it take to raise a credit score?
First off, what’s considered a good score versus a poor one? Here are some general parameters:
If you’re looking to boost your credit score fast, here are some actions you can take.
Correct errors on your credit report
Correcting errors on your credit report is a relatively quick way to improve your credit score. If it’s a simple identity error—like a credit card that’s not yours showing up—you can get that corrected within one to two months.
If it’s an error on one of your accounts, though, it could take longer, because you need to involve your creditor as well as the credit bureau. The entire process typically takes 30 to 90 days. If there’s a lot of back-and-forth between you, the credit bureau, and your creditor, it could take longer.
The first step to correcting errors is to get a copy of your credit reports from TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian (the three major credit bureaus), which you can do at no cost once a year at annualcreditreport.com. Next, review them for errors. If it’s an error on one of your accounts, you must refute that error with the bureau by providing documentation arguing otherwise. For example, if you paid a credit card on time and the card issuer is reporting a late payment, find a bank statement showing that you paid on time.
Credit bureaus typically have 30 days to investigate the error. If they agree that it’s an error, they will remove the item. The credit bureau may also ask for additional information or ask you to discuss the information with the creditor involved. If that’s the case, stay on top of communications with your creditor so you can get things resolved as quickly as possible.
Deal with delinquent accounts
Bringing delinquent accounts current and settling accounts that are in collections can also boost your score fairly quickly. Once the creditor or collection agency reports your account update, you should see a positive bump in your score. Keep in mind, though, that your late payment history will remain on your credit report for seven years.
If you have bad accounts that have been on your report for six years or more, you may not want to worry about settling them or bringing them up to date. This can re-age the account, and if you fall behind again, it will stay on your credit report for another seven years.
“Make sure you don’t re-age these accounts, because they’re going to drop off soon,” says Nathan Danus, CDMP and Director of Housing and Community Development at DebtHelper in West Palm Beach, FL. Negative information typically “falls off” your credit report after seven years, so if you’re close, it’s best to just wait it out.
Lower your credit utilization
Credit utilization refers to how much you owe compared with the amount of credit you have available. For example, if you have a $10,000 credit limit across all your credit cards and you have balances totaling $9,000, you’ve utilized 90% of your credit. This drags down your credit score.
“What these consumers often need to do is pay down the balances on their existing credit accounts, which can be a challenge if they’ve allowed the balances to creep up over time,” says Martin H. Lynch, compliance manager and director of education at Cambridge Credit Counseling of Agawam, MA. “The ratio of what’s owed to the amount of credit available represents 30% of the consumer’s score, so rapid improvement is possible if there’s a large amount of money available to pay down balances.”
Linda L. Jacob, a financial counselor at Consumer Credit of Des Moines, IA, recommends paying down balances to below one-third of your credit line. Any payments you make will be reflected on your credit report as soon as your creditors report your payment to the credit bureaus. Credit scores are updated on an ongoing basis, and creditors typically report once per month, so if you make a payment that lowers your credit utilization, that should be reflected on your credit score within two months.
If you’re regularly using your credit card but you want to keep your utilization low so you can apply for a mortgage, you may want to pay down your credit-card balance on a weekly or biweekly basis. This ensures that your balance is as low as possible whenever your creditor reports your payment history to the credit bureaus.
You can also decrease your card utilization by getting more credit, but this approach can backfire. Consumers sometimes assume that by getting more credit, their credit score will improve. If you have a $3,000 balance on a card with a $4,000 credit limit and you’re approved for a new credit card with a $1,000 limit, you now have $5,000 in total credit lines. Instead of using 75% of your available credit, you’re now using 60%. That’s better, right?
Not necessarily. “Just applying for credit lowers your credit score, and that effect lasts for months,” warns Mike Sullivan, personal finance consultant at Take Charge America in Phoenix, AZ. “For the first few months after you apply for credit, your credit score may actually go down.”
You can try getting around this by asking a credit limit increase on a card you already have. Be sure to ask whether they do a “soft” credit pull rather than a “hard” credit pull, though, since hard credit inquiries are the ones that impact your credit. A creditor may be willing to give you a credit line increase with a “soft” pull, which will not hurt your credit score.
Soft inquiries are for background purposes only. For example, a credit card company may do a soft pull to see if you’re eligible for certain credit card offers, or an employer may do a soft pull before offering you a job. Soft pulls can be done without your permission and do not impact your credit score. Hard pulls require your permission, and are done when lenders or credit card companies are assessing whether to grant you a loan or line of credit.
How to raise your credit score for the long haul
Once you’ve corrected errors, settled your delinquent accounts, and brought your credit utilization under control, the only other things that will improve your score are time and developing good payment habits. For example, if you tend to forget to make payments, you can set up automatic payments so you don’t forget.
And here’s some good news for people with bad credit: Generally, people with the lowest scores will see the biggest gains the fastest.
“It’s a lot like dieting,” says Sullivan.
For instance, if your score is 550, “you could probably get it up 30 points in a matter of a couple months, if you’re really dedicated and really careful,” he explains.
On the other hand: “If your credit score is already a 750 and you’re trying to get it to 780, that can take double or more the time.”
Still, it’s worth doing whatever you can to get the best interest rate possible.
For more smart financial news and advice, head over to MarketWatch.