Between considering mortgage terms and insurance to viewing properties with your realtor, buying your first home is a busy and stressful time. And when you’re talking about the biggest financial commitment you’ll probably make in your life, it can be pretty intimidating too. While there are mortgage professionals available to provide advice on your home purchase and help find the best mortgage solution for your specific situation, you’ll still need to go into the meeting with your advisor prepared with questions. So even if you’re totally mystified by the mortgage process, these five questions will help set you on the right track.
1. How do I know if I’m ready to buy a home?
“Knowing if you’re ready to buy a home could mean a lot of things and ultimately depends on the person’s own situation,” Wan Li, Mortgage Specialist at TD Group Financial Services, tells Livabl. “Potential homebuyers need to consider how much they’ve saved up for a downpayment, whether they have stable, continuous income and if they anticipate any large purchases or major life events in the future.”
2. What factors determine my eligibility for a mortgage loan?
Unless you’re rolling in cash, most homebuyers will need to apply for a loan from a bank or mortgage broker. However, whether or not you’ll be approved for a loan and the amount you’re eligible for depend on many factors.
“Even if you have a large down payment and have cash available, a bank will not lend you money without a job and stable income.” says Li. “It’s also better if you’ve worked for the same company for over half a year or at least have passed your probation period.”
Your credit rating is another important factor that can mean the difference between getting approved or denied for your loan. Credit scores range from 300 to 900 and are affected by late payments and debt level. The higher your score, the better chance of being considered for a mortgage.
“Ideally, you’ll want to have a credit score of at least 600 to be approved by a bank,” explains Li. “Any less and you’ll likely need to go to a private B-lender which aren’t as strict, but have higher interest rates and charge administration fees.”
3. How much do I need for my down payment?
Depending on where you live and the total cost of the home, the minimum down payment you need can vary from 5 per cent to 20 per cent. However, if you have less than 20 per cent, you’re going to have to pay for mortgage insurance which protects your lender in the event that you can’t pay your loan.
“In Canada, those who put less than 20 per cent down will have to pay for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) mortgage loan insurance,” says Li. “It’s typically calculated as a percentage of your mortgage and is added to your regular mortgage payments.”
4. What does pre-approval mean and should I get pre-approved?
Before you head out and start viewing properties for sale, it’s highly recommended that you first get pre-approved. A mortgage pre-approval will help you determine your maximum budget for your new home and can also give you an edge on the competition should you find yourself in a bidding war. Plus, once you do find your perfect home, you’ll be able to move on it quickly since you know you’re already pre-approved on your finances.
“Getting pre-approved involves filling out a mortgage application and providing documents on your financial history to your bank or lender,” says Li. “The bank will then look at your current income and credit history to determine if you qualify for a mortgage loan. The assessment will usually include a specific term, interest rate and mortgage amount depending on your situation.”
5. What’s the difference between the term and the amortization?
The mortgage term and amortization period are two common phrases in the homebuying process that often cause confusion for first-time homebuyers. The mortgage term refers to the period of time that you have locked in the agreed upon terms and conditions, including the interest rate and monthly or bi-weekly payments towards your mortgage. Five-year mortgage terms are the most common, however they can range from three to 10 years. By contrast, the amortization period is the total number of years that you choose to pay off your mortgage and can be up to 30 years depending on your down payment.
“If you put less than 20 per cent down, your maximum amortization period is 25 years, but if your down payment is more than 20 per cent, you can have an amortization period of up to 30 years,” says Li. “However, while a longer amortization may result in lower monthly payments, you’re also going to end up paying a lot more in interest.”
If you live in an area where homes are selling like hot cakes, you may be feeling exceptionally confident in the value of your property. And as a result, you may be considering a home upgrade you’ve been dreaming of for years. Perhaps you want to add a pool, or maybe you want to add more square footage to your home. Or maybe you’re just aching to do something because you’ve been watching way too much HGTV.
Before you dip into your savings account or apply for a home equity loan, experts say you should think long and hard about your financial investment and your choices. Just because a specific upgrade seems like a good idea right now doesn’t mean it will pay off later. Plus, there are some upgrades that many homeowners regret almost instantly, either because they wind up overspending or because were a bad idea in the first place.
Seven Home Improvements You May Live to Regret
Home remodelers, beware. Spending money to “upgrade” your home doesn’t always pay off, and it could even hurt your home’s value in the long run. Here are some upgrades the experts suggest you steer clear of:
#1: Garage conversion
A garage conversation can seem like a good idea if you need more living space and don’t mind parking in the driveway or street. However, this remodeling project comes with plenty of risk. Not only are garage conversations often done poorly and in a way that makes them look obvious — and awkward — but you can face problems if you remodel your garage without getting proper permits.
Vincent Nepolitan of Planet Home Lending points out another potential problem: When you go to sell, you may find a more limited pool of potential buyers. Not having a garage for buyers to park their vehicle can limit the number of people you get through the door, thus preventing you from getting the sales price you want for your home. This is especially true in areas where all the neighboring homes have garages, Nepolitan says, and in areas with hard winters or sizzling-hot summers.
#2: Converting a bedroom for another purpose
With more people working remotely than ever before, it may seem like a good idea to convert a spare bedroom into an office. This can be a good idea if you only make superficial upgrades like replacing a bed with a freestanding desk. But there could be financial consequences if you pour a lot of resources into the renovation or make structural changes — converting the closet into a built-in desk area, for example — so the room no longer qualifies as a bedroom afterward.
The reason for this? Homes with more bedrooms can fetch a higher sales price and tend to attract a larger pool of buyers, says Georgia-based real estate investor Shawn Breyer. A buyer with two children might insist on having three bedrooms, for example, and be unwilling to consider any two-bedroom homes. They might also be willing to pay a premium to secure a home with a fourth bedroom they could use as a guest room.
The bottom line: When it comes to a home’s value, the more bedrooms the better — so don’t think long and hard before getting rid of one.
#3: Adding a pool
It’s easy to think having a pool would make your life more fun and more relaxing. After all, what’s better than spending a lazy day floating in the water with a cold drink or a good book?
Unfortunately, the reality of pool ownership doesn’t always line up with expectations. Pools may be great for summer, but they’re often expensive to maintain over the long haul, says CEO of Patch Homes Sahil Gupta, and require a lot of work, from adding chemicals to cleaning and maintenance.
And, you may not find your pool quite as fun in a few years’ time. Gupta notes that pools tend to go unused during winters and once kids leave the house, and that they may eventually become a safety hazard for grandkids or pets. (In fact, a pool can increase your home insurance premiums.)
Finally, only a limited number of buyers will even want a pool in certain parts of the country, so you might wind up selling your home for less than you wanted or waiting longer for a buyer as a result.
#4: Kid-related upgrades
While pools are commonly added by families with kids, there are other kid-related upgrades homeowners may rush into without thinking them through, says Julie Gurner, senior real estate analyst at TheClose.com. “Some upgrades consumers tend to regret are, for example, linked to children and their temporary place in the home,” says Gurner.
A solid example would be adding a basketball court to your backyard because your child is really into the sport. “Sports courts require maintenance and take up a large portion of the backyard recreation space,” says Gurner. And not every buyer will want a basketball court in their yard when you go to sell.
Before you go through with a costly upgrade that may only be needed for a few years, consider whether there are less permanent and less costly options available.
#5: Trendy interiors
Gurner points out another mistake that’s often fueled by HGTV mania — following fads and planning your home upgrades around what’s currently “hip.” Gurner points to the recent shiplap craze as an example, noting that the wooden-board wall cover that’s trending now may be the “wood paneling of the future.”
Other ubiquitous home improvement trends that could leave you wincing at your choices later on include stainless steel appliances, open kitchen shelves, brass accents, and basically anything that’s shabby chic. When it comes to fashion and trends, whatever’s “in” now is always on its way out at some point.
#6: Textured walls and ceilings
Speaking of outdated trends: Textured walls are so 1980s, but some people who never got the memo still slap a layer of popcorn on before they paint, even if it’s just to match other rooms in the house. But Breyer says that adding texture to walls and ceilings is a mistake — partly because it can turn off potential buyers when you go to sell, but also because it’s expensive to remove if you change your mind.
Breyer says that, most of the time, it costs $1 to $2 per square foot of space to have textured walls refinished with a smooth surface. Plus, you’ll also face the cost of repainting your walls and/or ceilings after the removal is complete.
Real estate agent Justin Moundas says that over-improvements tend to leave homeowners regretting their choices. “It never pays to be the nicest or biggest house on the block,” he says. “Often people regret investing so much into the home that it can’t be justified in the resale value for the area.”
According to Remodeling Magazine’s 2018 Cost vs. Value Report, some remodeling projects that don’t offer a great bang for your buck include big-ticket investments like backyard patios (47.6% return), a master suite addition (48.3% return), a major kitchen remodel (53.5% return), and the addition of a bathroom (54.6% return).
Each of these projects may help you enjoy your home while you live there, but they may leave you wishing you had spent your money elsewhere if you move within a few years.
If you want a home that’s a lot nicer than the one you have now, Moundas says upgrading to a different home can be a better deal than remodeling. By finding a different home that already has the floorplan and upgrades you want, you can avoid the hassle and stress of remodeling along with runaway costs.
The Bottom Line
If you watch popular real estate shows on HGTV all the time, it’s easy to think that home remodeling projects always pay off. After all, the stars of shows like Flip vs. Flop and Fixer Upper almost always turn bargain basement homes into spectacular investments, mostly by choosing the right upgrades and getting them for the right price.
But real life is not like television. In the real world, home upgrades are usually only a good idea if you plan to stay in your home and pick finishes that would appeal to the masses if you needed to sell.
Before you spend your hard-earned dollars on a pricey remodeling project, ask yourself what your goals are. Do you want to enjoy your chosen upgrades for years to come? Or are you simply following trends and keeping up with the Joneses? Do you absolutely need to upgrade to make your home livable, or could you get by with the home you have?
The real estate website Estately recently conducted a study showing how the continued gender wage gap in America affects home affordability and ownership for women.
To answer this question Estately used 2016 U.S. Census data to compare men’s and women’s median salaries in the 50 most populated U.S. cities.
Based on those salaries (and assuming a monthly mortgage payment of 28% of the gross monthly income) the site used a mortgage calculator to determine the maximum home price each salary could afford.
Armed with all of this information and after a review of the homes currently for sale in major cities across the country, Estately identified what percentage of homes men versus women could afford by city.
The results in some urban centers were bleak. Seattle for instance, has the biggest wage-based housing gap. Men can afford nearly 150% more homes than women. Colorado Springs, Miami, San Diego and San Jose also topped the list with significant gaps. For instance, in Colorado Springs men can afford 122.5% more homes than women, while further down the list in San Diego, the difference is still a significant 68.5%.
With these results in mind, we asked real estate and personal finance experts to share their top tips for single women seeking to purchase a home.
Don’t let the down payment scare you away
Coming up with the funds to make a down payment on a home can often seem impossible, particularly when so many Americans have sizable student loan bills and more.
Andrina Valdes, division president at Cornerstone Home Lending, urges buyers not to let this part of the process discourage them.
“Over and over again, potential home buyers report saving for the down payment as the biggest hurdle to homeownership. When you’re relying on one income to save up for it, the problem can seem insurmountable,” says Valdes.
The good news is there are all kinds of down payment assistance programs that can help individuals get into a home for less money down.
The Federal Housing Administration loan is popular among first-time and single-income home buyers thanks to its 3.5% down payment requirement. There are also programs offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs and USDA loans that may require no down payment at all, says Valdes.
Line up a guarantor or co-purchaser
The reality is that many single income households, whether they’re run by men or women, need assistance buying a home in today’s market.
Experienced agent Julie Gans of Triplemint suggests lining up a qualified guarantor, co-purchaser or someone who might be able to gift money for your home purchase.
“These three options help buyers with lower income, lack of reserve funds or the total overall funds to purchase properties,” said Gans. “Finding the right [property] that will allow these options are important and help women and single income families be successful in their purchases.”
Consider a fixer upper
A growing trend among home buyers with limited means has been buying older properties and rehabbing them, says Ralph DiBugnara, president of Home Qualified.
“There are a few mortgage products in the market right now that make that easier,” said DiBugnara. “Fannie Mae has a loan called Home Style and FHA has what’s called a 203k loan. They both allow you to not only finance the purchase price but also construction costs in the loan to help your home look new. This is one way women can buy less inexpensive homes and make them new, also giving them a much higher valued property at completion.”
Look at homes well below your means
Real-estate analyst Julie Gurner, of FitSmallBusiness.com, says it’s critical that single income households buy properties that are well below the amount they’ve been preapproved for.
“You see that gorgeous home at the top of your range? Pass on it, and you’ll be glad you did,” said Gurner. “Single women and single income families have to be especially mindful to buy a home below their means…It gives them an additional expense cushion every month. Things come up. Doctor visits, your car breaks down, or your furnace breaking can be a big financial hit if you don’t have the ability to absorb it. On months where nothing goes wrong, you have the ability to save.”
As a single income earner, it’s important to protect yourself financially and be able to provide the necessities that make life stable. Having a home below your means can give you both and a great place to live.
House hunt during the right season
When it comes to finding an affordable home, time of year can make a big difference.
That means shopping during the right seasons, when prices traditionally are more negotiable and inventory is better, says Valdes.
Recent data from Trulia shows that there’s a 7% spike in starter home inventory during the fall, making it an ideal time to find a good deal. On the flip side, starter home inventory drops by more than 20% during the summer, making the warmer months a less appealing market.
Minimize credit card debt
As you embark upon your housing search, it’s critical that you reduce existing debt. This helps on a variety of levels.
I’m very interested in buying a certain house, but the seller wants me to fork over a really big deposit. If I change my mind, can I get my deposit back?
The short answer to your question is that, in most cases, real estate transaction deposits are not refundable.
There’s no set amount for deposits, however. If the owner’s demand for a large deposit is a major sticking point, you could ask your real estate representative to try to negotiate a lower deposit amount with the seller.
A deposit is the money you put down to secure a property that you want to purchase. Providing a deposit is both a gesture of good faith and a serious commitment. Once the seller accepts your written offer, it becomes an Agreement of Purchase and Sale (APS), which is a legally binding contract.
Once the APS is signed and the deposit is provided to the seller’s rep, attempting to renege on the APS by saying, “Sorry, I’m no longer interested” is highly inadvisable. You will almost certainly lose your deposit. The seller also might sue you for damages for any difference between the amount of your offer and the amount they accept from another buyer, along with any additional legal fees and carrying costs. You don’t want to go down that road.
Deposits are sometimes returned to would-be buyers when conditions are placed on an offer and the conditions aren’t satisfied. For instance, if you make an offer on a house on the condition of financing, but your bank won’t approve it. Or your purchase depends upon the successful sale of your current home, but it doesn’t sell in time. Or you make your purchase conditional on a home inspection and the home inspector discovers a problem that stops you from moving forward.
If you can’t go through with the purchase because your conditions haven’t been met and you want your deposit back, you’ll have to sign a release form and get the seller’s signature, too. It’s a pretty straightforward procedure and sellers will usually go along with such requests. But if the seller suspects you didn’t act in good faith, they could refuse to hand over the money.
What happens next? Well, the deposit would stay in a trust account, usually with the seller’s brokerage, and the dispute between you and the seller would become a legal matter. If you and the seller are unable to arrive at a settlement, a judge could eventually release the funds through a court order. But I’ll warn you: that can take a long time.
It’s a myth that a seller can pocket a buyer’s deposit any time a deal falls through. Cases involving deposits of $25,000 or less can be decided in small claims court, which is relatively inexpensive and easy for ordinary Ontarians to use. Cases involving larger deposits, however, are decided in Ontario’s much more formal Superior Court of Justice. Court cases can quickly become expensive, so you should carefully consider all of your options before taking this route.
If you’re serious about buying this house, I strongly recommend working closely with both a lender — to get your financial ducks in a row — and a real estate salesperson before you commit yourself to a deal and hand over a deposit.
Source: By JOE RICHER Registrar, Real Estate Council of Ontario Sat., Jan. 27, 2018
If there’s one question that’s been on everyone’s minds these past few months (maybe years), it’s likely been this one:
How much do I have to make to comfortably afford to live in Mississauga?
At a time when home prices have never been higher (although they are falling month-over-month and the feeding frenzy that characterized the winter months appears to be over), it’s normal to question whether or not a modest salary is enough to guarantee comfortable homeownership.
The article points out something that most people are well (and scarily) aware of: across the GTA, one million dollars is the going rate for an average single-family detached home.
“Even amid the recent blip in sales activity, that’s a full 21 per cent (or $199,000) jump in prices when compared to the same time last year,” TheRedPin writes.
For a simpler look into the market, TheRedPin broke down the salary you need to earn in order to buy an average home in the GTA. Keep in mind that you do not necessarily need to make this kind of money on your own—if your combined household income (the income you and your spouse, partner or housemate bring in together) reaches a certain amount, you might be able to afford a home.
GTA-wide, here’s the salary you need based on home type:
In Mississauga specifically, the average home price sits at about $748,952 (keep in mind this sum represents all house types—detached, semi, town and condo—combined). To afford a home, your needed household income is a fairly substantial $132,450. This will cover your average monthly mortgage payments of about $2,832.
The figures regarding GTA-wide prices factor in average prices from January to July 2017 for the entire GTA (so they’re not Mississauga-specific, naturally)
That said, they show a pertinent trend in the 905 region that Mississauga homeowners and buyers should pay attention to.
“Six-figure household incomes were required for all home types, except for condo apartments, which edged just below that threshold. Detached homes obviously led the pack in terms of needed household income, as it was the only home type that demanded a collective salary over $200,000,” TheRedPin writes. “While condos may not be the most expensive property type, buyers needed to earn approximately 24 per cent (or $17,000) more this year than they did last year to afford a high-rise apartment. On the other hand, detached-home buyers needed around 21 per cent ($35,000) more compared to 2016.”
The good news is that the market is indeed cooling. In May, the first full month the Liberal’s Fair Housing Plan was in effect (the plan that involves implementing a 15 per cent tax on foreign buyers and speculators), home sales declined 20.3 per cent and supply of properties on the market shot up a considerable 48.9 per cent (which is good, considering how low inventory drove prices sky high in early 2017).
So did the salary you need to buy an average property drop from May to July?
“For everything from detached houses to townhomes, the answer was yes,” writes TheRedPin. “The only exception was condo apartments, which saw prices increase collectively over the past three months.”
With reduced buying power next year, expect house hunters to scoop up everything under $500,000.
Paul D’Abruzzo, an investment advisor with Rockstar Real Estate, says that while most people will qualify for less money on their mortgages, they won’t be completely shut out of the market. They will simply adjust their demands.
“If somebody was preapproved for $500,000, their new approval will be $400-450,000, so they will lose 10-20% of their preapproval amount,” he told CREW. “It won’t shut people out, it will just move them lower. If some were on the brink of getting approved, you’ll lose some there, but lower-priced properties will do very, very well.”
In Toronto, that will put single-family detached homes even further out of the reach than they are now, but the popularity of condos will keep soaring.
“In Toronto, with everybody’s sightline coming down, condos will be the most popular,” said D’Abruzzo. “In the GTA, like Mississauga or Vaughan, it will be condos and maybe townhouses.”
Single-family detached homes will become difficult, but not impossible, to afford. The Greater Toronto Area’s fringes still have moderately priced detached houses for sale, and even with the new mortgage rules, that won’t change.
“In Hamilton, Kitchener and St. Catharines, $400,000 gets you a detached home,” he said, “so you’ll see a continued trend of population spreading out into the horseshoe.”
According to D’Abruzzo, 2018 will not be kind to sellers—at least not through the first few months—but he recommends being patient.
“Right now, people are trying to get their places sold before the mortgage rules kick in,” he said. “Next year, inventory will be crap in January and February. If anyone is scared or fearful and waiting to sell their house, patience is the solution right now. Just wait and see, because nobody knows for sure what it will be like.”
Akshay Dev, a sales agent with REMAX Realty One, echoed that wait-and-see approach. While nobody will miss out because of too much time on the sidelines, Dev says Toronto’s chronic housing shortage will continue working in sellers’ favour next year.
“Whatever correction was needed is done, and in the spring we should see the market picking up and being strong,” he said. “In the Toronto area, there’s a huge shortage of housing, so it’s still going to be a seller’s market, but I don’t expect crazy bidding wars. Sellers will still get the prices they’re expecting.”
Contrary to popular belief, first-time buyers won’t have trouble purchasing starter homes, especially because cheaper abodes will be in high demand. However, they might live in those homes longer than the historical average.
“Historically, we’ve seen that when people graduate from their first buying experience, it takes anywhere from three to five years to move into the next level of housing, but it may become five to seven years with new rules,” said Dev.
Source: Canada Real Estate Magazine – by Neil Sharma 8 Dec 2017
When divorcing partners divide their assets, the split isn’t always as fair as it first appears. Here’s what you need to know.
Two weeks after his divorce, Phil Doughty received a blunt letter from his ex-wife’s lawyer. It informed him he’d contravened his settlement by not giving his ex her $100,000 share of his pension within 10 days of the divorce.
“It was a knockdown punch,” says the retired teacher from Montreal. “I had no idea I had to pay her right away, or that the money would come directly out of my pension fund.” Doughty thought his ex would simply get a share of his benefit after he stopped working. “I’d never heard of a company taking money out of a pension eight years before retirement.”
With his pension fund depleted, Doughty’s monthly cheques were reduced by over a third when he eventually retired, yet he was still required to pay spousal support from what remained, leaving him strapped. “I had to find another lawyer to help me get out of those support payments I couldn’t afford anymore.”
Doughty (we’ve changed his name, and those of all the featured subjects in this article) believes his pension arrangement should have been handled differently—at the very least it should have been explained to him properly. “I guess it was just something the lawyers worked out between them,” he says. “My lawyer and I never really talked about the pension.”
It seems hard to believe a lawyer would not talk to a client about how such an important asset would be divided, but Doughty insists he would have remembered such a conversation. His situation is just one example of how partners frequently get divorced without understanding all the financial implications.
“Divorce changes a person’s financial situation dramatically and often there is no planning for it,” says Debbie Hartzman, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst in Kingston, Ont., and co-author of Divorce Isn’t Easy, But It Can Be Fair. (CDFAs are planners with additional training in the financial impact of separation and divorce. See “Where to get help,” at the bottom of this page.) “I’ve had clients say things like, ‘I just spent four years fighting with my ex, I have this cheque for $400,000, and I have no idea what that means in terms of my financial future.’”
Surely part of a lawyer’s job entails discussing financial matters surrounding divorce. Apart from custody of children, aren’t money and property the big issues in divorce? “A family lawyer’s job includes giving advice about a number of financial issues, but we are not financial analysts,” says Bruce Clark, who observed many divorce-related financial problems during his 35-year career as a family lawyer in Toronto.
Lawyers may not anticipate the long-term implications of divorce-related financial matters. For example, Hartzman explains it’s possible to have different divisions of assets that all meet the 50/50 requirements of the law but have profoundly different financial consequences for the divorcing partners. Her book includes a case study that presents different ways to legally divide the assets of a middle-class couple. Both are 58 years old, and the largest assets are the house and pensions (his is four times more valuable than hers). In one scenario, the assets are split more or less equally, so the initial net worth of the two partners is about the same. However, her share of the man’s pension is paid out as a lump sum, and the support payments are not structured to reflect the fact his post-retirement income will be higher than hers. As a result, after age 65 the woman’s net worth and monthly cash flow flatline, while the man’s relative financial situation steadily improves. “The person with the pension can end up in a much better financial position than the person with the house, particularly if the pension is indexed to inflation,” says Jim Doyle, a CDFA with Investors Group in Vancouver.
Here’s a different scenario: she keeps the house and gets only a quarter of his pension. To the untrained eye that seems to be simply an alternative way of dividing the pie equally. Yet this arrangement ensures the woman’s net worth stays similar to the man’s for the rest of their lives, without diminishing his financial situation.
Of course, case studies do not translate into rules that ensure ideal financial arrangements for every divorcing couple. That’s why it’s a good idea to consult a financial professional as well as a lawyer if you’re going through divorce or separation.
Don’t assume every asset must be split down the middle. “People often want to split up each individual asset, but not all assets are created equal. It’s usually better to look at assets in terms of how to divide the whole cake,” says Hartzman.
Doughty is not the first divorced person to be subject to pension shock. Many people don’t even realize pensions have to be shared after divorce, says Clark. “In my experience, most people consider their pensions to be their personal property, as opposed to an asset that must be shared equally after a divorce. In a longer-term marriage the pension is often the single biggest asset.”
This was the case for Doughty and his ex-wife, who had sold their matrimonial home shortly before separating. By law his ex-wife was entitled to half the teacher’s pension that accumulated during their marriage.
“Pensions are very, very complicated assets,” says Sharon Numerow, a CDFA and divorce mediator with Alberta Divorce Finances in Calgary. “Defined benefit pensions must be independently valued by an actuary, and the rules about paying out a spouse vary from province to province.” For example, in Alberta there are no longer any provincial pension plans that allow monthly payouts to an ex-spouse when the member spouse retires. Therefore, the only option is to give the ex-spouse a designated value that is transferred into a Locked-In Retirement Account or LIRA (called a locked-in RRSP in some provinces). “This almost always has to be done after the separation agreement is signed, and not usually at retirement,” says Numerow.
On the other hand, Ontario recently adjusted its Family Statute Law in the opposite direction. Now a portion of a person’s pension payments can be made directly to an ex-spouse after retirement. Another possibility is for the spouse without the pension to get another asset equal to the value.
Bottom line, don’t underestimate the potential for misunderstanding pension division. It’s important to work with your lawyer to understand the legal issues, then talk to a financial planner who can help you appreciate the short-, medium- and long-term implications of the division of this and your other assets.
Close to home
Another key, says Hartzman, is determining whether it’s viable for one partner to stay in the family home. There are two main questions: Can one partner actually afford to keep the home? And how will keeping the home affect that person’s financial future?
“Most people I’ve worked with live in houses that require two incomes, so after divorce one person would be trying to maintain the home on half as much income, and often it just isn’t affordable,” Hartzman says. “Can you imagine how hard it is to tell someone already going through the emotional turmoil of divorce that they can’t afford to stay in the family home they and their children are so attached to?”
Sandra Baron, an Ottawa mother of two, did manage to stay in the matrimonial home after her divorce. A financial planner helped her figure out how to pull this off. “My first lawyer really didn’t seem to understand my financial situation,” Baron explains. “I went to see a financial planner and asked if I could afford to buy out the matrimonial home from my husband. He helped me work it out.”
Baron and her spouse had always lived within their means. They had no debt other than a mortgage with much lower principal than they qualified for. That, combined with support payments and Baron’s earning potential (she had been an at-home parent most of her marriage but began doing contract work after the divorce), meant she was able to keep the family home.
The financial planner also gave Baron some tax-saving advice on how to invest some money she had brought into the marriage. Since she had that money before the marriage and kept it in a separate account, it was not an asset that had to be shared equally. However, had she used that money to help pay down the mortgage, it would have become part of the value of the matrimonial home and therefore a joint asset.
This is also the case if one spouse receives an inheritance or gift during the marriage. In most provinces, as long as the money is kept in a separate account it does not have to be divided equally after a divorce. But if it is used to purchase a joint asset, such as a house, it becomes the property of both spouses. (In some jurisdictions growth in the value of the inheritance or gift may count as an asset to be shared.)
Perhaps the biggest factor in Baron’s situation was that she and her husband actually saved money for their separation. “It was almost five years from the time we realized the marriage was likely not able to be repaired that we saved for the eventual separation. Unless the relationship was harmful, I felt it was in the best interest of everyone—particularly the children, who are all that really mattered in the end—to plan and wait so things would be better for them financially.”
It’s a safe bet the path Baron and her ex-husband took is not typical of divorcing couples. Obviously they got along well, even after deciding to separate; they had no debts other than the mortgage and were both well acquainted with their family financial situation. The opposite is much more likely, says Numerow. “It’s common for one partner to know very little about the family finances, and they often don’t know the extent of their debts.”
Lady in red
When Anna Masters, of Taber, Alta., separated from her husband she moved in with her sister and started a new job at a bank. She also applied for a new credit card through that bank, so the person doing the credit check was one of her colleagues. When the Equifax credit report came through, the coworker quietly asked Masters to step into her office. “You are behind in all your bills and credit cards. Most of them are in collections,” the embarrassed colleague said.
“I was horrified,” says Masters. “Even the cell phone bills weren’t paid. I didn’t even know my ex had his own cell phone.”
That’s not the worst of it. Masters’ ex-husband had a line of credit she didn’t know about it, which listed her as a co-signer. Masters says he must have forged her signature on the application.
It’s not hard to find similar tales of woe. Alan Leclair of Winnipeg tried to remortgage his house not long before he and his wife split up. “When the credit check came in the banker said to me, ‘You’ve got debts you didn’t tell me about. You’d better go home and talk to your wife about it,’” says Leclair. These debts were considerable—between $30,000 and $40,000 in unpaid credit card balances. Fortunately, Leclair’s ex-wife eventually agreed to take responsibility for them.
Masters was less fortunate. She got stuck with a big chunk of debt—loans and credit cards her husband was supposed to pay off, but didn’t—as well as the line of credit he’d fraudulently put her name on. “I could only get part-time work at the bank, but I worked every other junk job I could find. It took me three years, but I paid off my share, and in a way I’m glad I went through the experience. I’m in control of my finances now,” Masters says.
The one smart thing Masters feels she did in the lead-up to her separation was to start setting aside money (“Omigod money,” she called it) so she’d have something to fall back on in an emergency. “Even before I realized the full extent of the financial mess we were in, I knew my ex was spending irresponsibly, so I started squirreling money away.” That money—about $3,500, which she kept in a sock hidden under a pile of towels in the linen closet—ended up being used to cover her living expenses during a spell of unemployment after moving to a new town after she was separated.
Leclair did something similar. “I had a friend who was going through a divorce and I asked him for advice. He said, ‘Put a few bucks away.’ So I did.” He hid cash in his house and even left about $500 at a friend’s house. “When the separation happened I was in scramble mode, dealing with all kinds of things. It was comforting to at least know that money was there,” he says.
Clark, the family lawyer, explains any money you stash prior to separation “will still be subject to division, but you will have the use of it while property issues are being sorted out. There is nothing illegal about this as long as you declare the amounts you have put aside.”
It’s hardly surprising that people have trouble working through issues like asset division and debt. But the path to divorce is laden with other potential financial mistakes.
One is trying to settle too fast. “People want it settled tomorrow,” says Jim Doyle, the financial planner. “Emotions often determine the choices rather than making the numbers make sense. I say to people, ‘Let’s slow down and do the math.’” He says it’s common for partners to make hasty, ill-advised decisions about asset splitting just to avoid conflict. “Sometimes in relationships where there is an imbalance of power, one person might simply capitulate, resulting in a financial decision that may have negative consequences down the road.”
Don’t ignore the tax implications. “One of the biggest items that is often overlooked in separation and divorce agreements is tax deductions, such as child-care expenses, and credits that may apply to separated and divorced parents,” says Numerow. For example, a divorced parent can claim one child as a dependent, but both parents cannot claim the same child.
Another dangerous road is trading property for time with children. “Big mistake—just don’t do it,” says Numerow. In addition, remember that spousal or child support and asset division are, for the most part, completely separate issues.
Finally, if you’re a common-law spouse, don’t assume the process is the same as it is for married couples. Generally, legal requirements regarding spousal and child support are the same, provided a couple has been living common-law for at least two years (three in some provinces). However, the division of assets is not automatic, as it is in a marriage, which comes as a surprise to many people, Numerow says. “Go to a lawyer and find out what you do and don’t have to share. Laws concerning common-law separations vary by province.”
One message Clark, Numerow and Hartzman all want to get across is this: both partners should always be aware of the family’s financial situation. If one partner is more hands-on with the money, the other at least needs to understand the big picture. “I’ve met a lot of spouses who weren’t involved in the finances and they’re ashamed,” says Numerow. “I tell them, ‘Don’t beat yourself up over it. Now is the time to begin your learning.’ However, if both partners were on top of the family finances it would make divorce a lot easier.”—written by John Hoffman
Where to get help
Certified Divorce Financial Analysts usually charge between $175 and $250 per hour. “If people do their homework and bring in all the relevant financial information, we can usually get a fairly good handle on the situation in two hours,” says CDFA and author Debbie Hartzman. “For an individual, it usually takes no more than three hours overall. With couples it usually takes three sessions of an hour or an hour-and-a-half each.” She notes that a better understanding of your financial situation can save your lawyer’s time, which is much more expensive.
To find a CDFA, do a web search for your town and CDFA, or visit the website of the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts (www.institutedfa.com) and search by city, town or area code.