In 1998, Ann bought a one-bedroom condo in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver. Gainfully employed at a printing company, she found the monthly mortgage payments were within her budget (Ann and others quoted in this story asked that Maclean’s not use their full names). The building was on the older side, and eventually she got the itch to update the decor. She intended to replace only her bathroom sink; she ended up renovating the entire bathroom. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, now that I’ve started…’ ” The kitchen came next, then the living room and finally the bedroom. Ann thought the renos, funded partly on credit and spaced out over a few months, would boost her condo’s value. She also wanted to keep up with her neighbours. “Everyone was doing something,” she says.
Finances became tight afterwards, and she only paid the minimum on her credit card each month. Every year, her condo fees rose while her salary at the printing company (where she still works) stagnated. She began relying on credit for everyday expenses, and later took out a second card.
Soon, one of her banks began calling with a solution to help manage her debt. She ignored the inquiries, preferring not to think about her finances, but she started to feel desperate: “I just wanted to do something, and that was the only thing coming my way.” The bank offered a loan at a low rate to pay off her high-interest credit card debt, and she ended up taking out a second mortgage for $80,000. The interest rate still wasn’t manageable. “It was a huge mistake,” she says.
Saddled with two mortgages, rising condo fees and a flat income, she continued relying on credit cards. Surprise expenses, such as dental work, added to her debt. Embarrassment kept her from seeking help. Three years ago, she decided to sell her condo. Despite Vancouver’s booming market, the sale didn’t solve Ann’s financial problems. She moved in with a friend and was able to pay off her mortgages, but she couldn’t make much of a dent in her credit card debt.
This year, Ann turned 64. She was carrying $70,000 in debt, and knew she couldn’t work another decade to pay it down. That realization prompted her to seek help, and she eventually met with an insolvency trustee. Earlier this year, Ann’s trustee filed a consumer proposal on her behalf. Less severe than personal bankruptcy, a proposal is an offer to all of an individual’s creditors to pay a portion of debt under a strict plan over a maximum of five years. The remainder is discharged. Creditors typically agree to these arrangements since they are guaranteed to recoup at least some of their money. For Ann, filing a proposal came as a relief. “I actually feel like I can breathe again,” she says.
Other Canadians are still suffocating. Earlier this year, the household debt-to-income ratio hit another record of 167.8 per cent. A long period of abnormally low interest rates has enabled Canadians to carry massive debts, since monthly payments appear manageable. Further, in cities with rising home values, particularly Toronto and Vancouver, homeowners can secure a home equity line of credit (HELOC) to pay other debts or simply fund their lifestyles. Last spring, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada warned that the increased use of HELOCs “may lead Canadians to use their homes as ATMs, making it easier for them to borrow more than they can afford.”
Insolvencies, though, are rare. As of the end of July, there were nearly 123,000 consumer proposals and personal bankruptcies filed by Canadians this year, a decline of 1.2 per cent from the same period last year. That might be a sign of fiscal prudence, but it’s also the result of record low interest rates that ease debt-carrying costs. Scott Terrio, an insolvency estate administrator and president of Debt Savvy in Toronto, calls this phenomenon “extend and pretend.” Canadians can extend their debt repayment terms and pretend to live a lifestyle they can’t otherwise obtain. He sees it all the time—couples with decent jobs carrying large mortgages, and putting daycare, cars and vacations on credit.
Some reach a trigger moment when they can no longer pretend—a job loss, say, or divorce or illness. But lately Terrio has noticed a change in his business. More clients are coming in because they’re simply tapped out. As with Ann in Vancouver, there is no trigger. “It’s a gradual realization for some people,” Terrio says. “They can’t do it anymore.” Lana Gilbertson, an insolvency trustee in Vancouver, has seen the same change. “Nowadays, they have jobs, they’re making money, they’re plugging along, but they’re just in over their heads,” she says.
The cost of borrowing is set to rise, adding strain to households. The Bank of Canada hiked rates twice this year, signalling more could be coming—depending, in part, on whether households can handle it. Economists at TD Bank Group believe two more rate hikes are likely next year. That will cause rates on everything from lines of credit to car loans to mortgages to tick up. At the same time, house prices are not rising as quickly as they once were in many Canadian cities. RBC Economics forecasts home prices in Canada will increase 11.1 per cent this year—and just 2.2 per cent in 2018. Canadians won’t be able to pull cash out of their homes so easily to get themselves out of trouble. “The insolvency business is cyclical, and we’re at least a year overdue for shedding blood in the system,” Terrio says. “If ever we were poised to hit that right on the head, it’s now.”
For some Canadians who struggle with debt, the problem can be traced back to real estate. In a survey TD released in September, 56 per cent of respondents from across Canada were willing to exceed their budget by up to $50,000 to purchase a home. At the same time, 97 per cent of homeowners said they wished they’d factored in other obligations before buying, such as property taxes, maintenance costs and “overall lifestyle expenses.”
The problem is not confined to Toronto or Vancouver, where huge price gains have enticed buyers to stretch themselves for fear of getting permanently priced out. In Regina, Joshua and his wife purchased a house in 2014 when expecting their first child. Both 24 years old at the time, they carried about $35,000 in debt between them, mostly tied to student loans. “We rushed into getting a house because we just thought it would be the right thing to do,” Joshua says. “It almost felt wrong to be renting and having a kid.” (Joshua’s mom pressured them to buy, too.) In one weekend, they viewed 16 houses. The very last one felt right. They put down five per cent and moved in.
But the couple was blindsided by maintenance costs. Their furnace needed repairs, and they later had to replace the water heater, which set them back hundreds of dollars. After expenses, the pair has virtually no cash to put toward their debt. Joshua’s card is maxed out, and his wife’s card is close to the limit. Joshua says they’re frugal (splurging means going to Subway) and live paycheque to paycheque. The situation became worse this year. His wife is on maternity leave with their second child and their variable mortgage rate ticked up. “Just the way the rate is fluctuating is killing us,” Joshua says, who works in sales at a telecommunications firm. “It can’t keep changing like this.”
Staring down tens of thousands of dollars in debt, rising mortgage costs and no foreseeable way to substantially boost their incomes, the couple decided to sell their house and rent. They’re not expecting a windfall. A while back, their basement flooded and they used the insurance money to repair the foundation. The basement had been finished, but there’s no cash to renovate it, so it will be sold in “as is” condition. The market in Regina is also soft, and the average home price is down slightly from 2014. Joshua hopes to at least get his down payment back, and their financial situation should improve when his wife returns to work as a massage therapist. “We’ll be able to really hack away at our debt,” he says, “but it’s going to take years.”
While real estate has led to financial distress for some Canadians, it’s been a saviour for others. The home equity line of credit has allowed millions of households to borrow against their properties, providing cash for everything from renovations to investing to debt consolidation. HELOCs have been around in Canada since the 1970s, but in the mid-1990s, lenders started marketing them to a wider swath of consumers. Between 2000 and 2010, HELOC balances soared from $35 billion to $186 billion, according to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, an average annual growth rate of 20 per cent.
The pace of growth has slowed since then, but balances still hit $211 billion last year. Lenders have been all too eager to dole out HELOCs, creating the perception of instant, easy money. An animated commercial for Alpine Credits, a lender in B.C., features a room full of employees rubber-stamping loans—even for a client who wants to install a four-storey waterslide. (The employees celebrate by cheering while one pops open champagne and another tears off his shirt.)
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One common use of HELOCs is to pay off higher-interest debt. Last year, according to Scotiabank, Canadians used $11.6 billion (or 28 per cent of HELOC withdrawals) for debt consolidation. Doug Hoyes, a founder of licensed insolvency trustee Hoyes, Michalos & Associates, has witnessed the shift. The firm has offices across Ontario and in 2011, roughly one-third of the firm’s clients owned a home when they filed for bankruptcy or a consumer proposal. Last August, just six per cent of insolvent consumers were homeowners. “You don’t need to file a proposal to pay off your debt,” he says. “You just go out and get a second mortgage.”
If the pace of home price appreciation slows down—or worse, prices drop—there will be consequences for households that have been piling on debt. The slowdown in the southwestern Ontario real estate market is already creating stress. Hoyes recently saw a couple who purchased a home four years ago and accumulated $70,000 in unsecured debt. They bought furniture, hired landscapers and borrowed to finance a swimming pool. Before the slowdown, the couple might have earned $100,000 by selling their home. Now they might get $70,000, which would barely cover their debts. They’re also reluctant to sell and move to a different neighbourhood. And because of the softening in the market, they haven’t been able to find a lender willing to issue them a HELOC large enough to cover their unsecured debt. Their solution? Convince one set of parents to take out a second mortgage, and borrow from them. “It’s the bank of mom and dad,” Hoyes says.
And while debt consolidation is an effective strategy if consumers don’t fall back on bad habits, Terrio says recidivism is a problem. “They go ka-ching out of their house and pay off their credit card debts, but they go and run up their cards again,” he says.
Borrowing against her home wasn’t enough for Charis Sweet-Speiss to pull herself out of debt. A registered nurse, she divorced and moved from Ottawa to Oliver, B.C., a town south of Kelowna, in 1998. Her then-boyfriend (now husband) wasn’t working at the time, and the couple used the divorce settlement to start building a new life; they bought a used car, a place to live and furniture. “Then that money was gone, so I just started using credit cards,” she says. “And it was so easy.” Their debt started building, and their income wasn’t sufficient to pay more than the minimum. New credit cards she’d never asked for arrived in the mail, and Sweet-Speiss started using them. She had 13 on the go at once, and eventually they were all maxed out. “I’ve always been employed. I make a good salary. But just paying the minimum every month was a lot of money,” she says. Every six months, she phoned each credit card company to wheedle them into reducing her interest rate. She caught some breaks, but never enough to make a big difference: “It was a horrible way to live.”
Sweet-Speiss says she wasn’t frivolous with her spending, but in retrospect, she made questionable decisions. When her daughter would run up a large balance on her own credit card, Sweet-Speiss sent her money—even though it meant sinking deeper into debt herself. Sweet-Speiss borrowed against her home at one point and withdrew money on two separate occasions to consolidate her debt, but was still left with $40,000 on her cards, and it built up again.
After more than a decade of amassing debt, Sweet-Speiss turned to the Credit Counselling Society for help ridding herself of nearly $67,000 spread across 13 cards. Once enrolled, her interest payments stopped and she was put on a plan to pay down principal. She completed the program this year. She still has a mortgage and a line of credit, but is finally free of high-interest credit card debt.
Sweet-Speiss says her mortgage would have been paid off a decade ago had she never borrowed against her house. Indeed, one of the problems with home-equity loans is that they cause debt persistence. HELOCs are marketed with little or no obligation to repay in a timely manner. For years, one of the main advantages of owning a home is the forced saving effect—paying the mortgage, combined with rising property values, builds equity. A HELOC undermines that dynamic, tempting consumers to access cash now rather than build wealth over the long term.
It marks a fundamental shift in the way Canadians think about homeownership. “Whatever happened to getting to the end of a mortgage and owning your home?” says Gilbertson, the trustee in Vancouver. “It’s less about truly owning our homes today and more about having another revenue stream to fund our lifestyles.”
That Canadians are carrying record amounts of debt is not in dispute. But the magnitude of the problem is contested. “I think the fears are overstated,” says Paul Taylor, CEO of Mortgage Professionals Canada. “Canadians are incredibly prudent, and history will show that.” As the head of an industry association for mortgage lenders, brokers and insurers, Taylor isn’t exactly impartial on the issue. But he points to a report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer released earlier this year showing that, since 2009, the debt service ratio—a measure of income spent to pay debt—has remained steady at around 14 per cent, not much higher than the long-term average. That’s a sign that even though we have more debt than 20 years ago, we’re not overextending ourselves, Taylor says.
But the same PBO report projects the debt service ratio will rise to an all-time high of 16.3 per cent by the end of 2021. Taylor says the premise is a “little bit flawed” because it presumes Canadians will make no changes to their finances owing to higher interest rates. “I’m certain people will become prudent again to ensure they retain that [historical] expense ratio,” he says. Already, brokers have been fielding calls from Canadians about locking in their mortgages to guard against future increases, for example.
Bank of Montreal chief economist Douglas Porter also contends that too much emphasis is placed on the debt-to-income ratio. “We have long been of the view that much of the commentary on this topic has been overwrought,” he wrote in a research note this month. The savings rate is close to the 25-year average of five per cent, which doesn’t point to a consumer debt apocalypse. Rather, Porter expects spending to “gradually moderate” as borrowing costs rise.
Still, numerous surveys show Canadians are worryingly close to the edge. A report from MNP Ltd., an insolvency trustee, released in October found 42 per cent of Canadians said they don’t think they can cover basic expenses over the next year without going deeper into debt. An earlier survey this summer found 77 per cent of respondents would have trouble absorbing an additional $130 per month in interest payments. And as organizations such as the IMF and the OECD have constantly warned, high household debt renders the country far more vulnerable to economic shocks.
When a downturn does hit, even a high income won’t necessarily provide enough protection. Gene moved from the U.S. to Calgary 12 years ago to take a job with a major oil company, earning more than $300,000 annually. He purchased a home for close to $1 million and supported his wife, two kids and mother-in-law. In 2015, Gene lost his job when the price of oil crashed, and was out of work for nine months. He took out a home equity loan for $30,000 to make ends meet, and eventually found another job at a pipeline company, but for half his previous salary. A six-ﬁgure income would be more than enough for most Canadians, but Gene and his family were accustomed to their lifestyle. The kids were enrolled in extracurricular activities, and housing costs added up to $4,100 every month.
A year later, Gene was laid off again. “It was just devastating for us,” he says, adding that he began questioning his self-worth if he was unable to provide for his family. He eventually found another job, but at a still smaller salary. On top of the mortgage and the line of credit, Gene had another $20,000 loan. When he first purchased his house, he didn’t quite hit the 20 per cent down payment threshold; his bank offered him a loan to cover the difference. He had a couple thousand in credit card debt and a small, high-interest loan from EasyFinancial he’d taken to cover an unexpected medical expense for a family member. Finally, he faced a $90,000 tax bill, since he opted not to pay after he lost his job. Gene sought help from an insolvency trustee earlier this year. “I just wasn’t making enough money, and I had to protect the family,” he says. Gene submitted a consumer proposal, but one of his creditors rejected the terms. In October, Gene filed for bankruptcy—just over two years after making a salary most Canadians can only dream of.
This sort of precariousness worries some experts, who fear wider implications for the Canadian economy. “We continue to see the household sector as accident-prone, with a complacency toward debt which could prove disruptive to the economy,” wrote HSBC Canada’s chief economist recently. The result is Canada is at “some risk” of a balance sheet recession—a period of slow growth or decline caused by consumers saving and paying down debt rather than spending. David Madani, an economist with Capital Economics in Toronto, doubts the growth Canada has seen in exports recently will be enough to offset the decline in consumer spending. “Canadian policy-makers have allowed household debt to rise above the disturbingly high levels reached in the U.S. in 2007, raising the risk of a similar potentially disastrous deleveraging down the road,” Madani wrote.
Statements like that could be dismissed as fear-mongering, but the reality is Canada hasn’t been in this situation before, and the outcome is impossible to predict. Canadians ignored warnings from policymakers about piling on debt for years because low interest rates were too enticing. Now households will have no choice but to dial it back. The only question is how bad the fallout will be.