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Variable vs. Fixed Mortgage Rates
📅 Last Updated: August 17, 2023
✏️ Written by: Priyanka Correia, BComm
🕵️ Fact-checked by: Caitlin Wood

A question many homebuyers are often conflicted about when buying a house is whether they should opt for a variable or fixed-rate mortgage. Depending on your financial circumstances, one will inevitably be better for you. Below, we’ll explain the differences between the two and how to choose between them.

What Is A Fixed-Rate Mortgage? 

Under a fixed-rate mortgage, your payment amounts do not change over the length of the loan term. Your payments go toward paying off the principal and interest combined. And although the payment remains the same each month, the percentage of each payment that goes toward paying off the principal and interest varies with each payment as you pay down your mortgage. In fact, the two have an inverse relationship, where the interest paid will slowly decrease as the principal paid will increase. 

To demonstrate this change in payments, below is a partial amortization table of a mortgage of $300,000 for 30 years with an interest rate of 4.2%. 

Due DatePayment InterestPrincipal Balance
March 20$1,467.05$1,050$417$299,583
April 20$1,467.05$1,049$419$299,164
May 20$1,467.05$1,047$420$298,744
June 20$1,467.05$1,046$421$298,323
July 20$1,467.05$1,044$423$297,900

How Is A Fixed-Rate Determined?

Fixed mortgage rates are determined based on the prime rate and the economic climate at the moment your loan contract is created. Therefore, the interest rate during your term will always remain the same regardless of how the economy and prime rate are doing a few years later.

In general, banks and lenders base their rates on the Bank of Canada benchmark rate. The benchmark rate is a rate that banks and lenders must adhere to when qualifying borrowers for mortgages in Canada. The reason is, the government wants to make sure people will be able to handle any market volatility. So, often you will find that the benchmark rate is about 1.5% higher than the best rates in the market.  

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VariesVariesAll of Canada - First mortgage
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$10,000+Based on equityAll of Canada except Quebec- Home equity loans
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$10,000+5.19%+All of Canada except Quebec - First mortgage
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$5,000 $50,000*19.99% to 24.49%All of Canada- Home equity loans
*On approved credit. Terms and conditions apply. Interest rates vary by province/territory and from customer to customer based on factors like credit score and borrowing history. See Fairstone's website for details.

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Pros And Cons Of A Fixed-Rate Mortgage 

Though the cost of borrowing a mortgage on a fixed rate tends to be a little higher than borrowing on a variable rate there are still several advantages. 

Pros 

There is no risk as any increase in the interest won’t affect you. You will be making the same payments every month regardless of what factors may change the economic state and thus rate. If you have to adhere to a strict budget and do not have the financial security and flexibility to make varied payments, a fixed rate is good for you. 

Cons

Though a fixed rate is a less risky option, it can be more expensive in terms of interest. Higher interest rates can make payments less affordable. When that happens borrowers may extend the term length to make the payments more affordable which results in more interest paid over the length of the term. 

What Is A Variable Rate Mortgage? 

A variable rate mortgage varies and changes with the prime rate. When the prime rate is adjusted based on economic factors the variable rate on your mortgage loan will be adjusted as well. Therefore, your payments can be constantly changing based on economic factors.

How Is A Variable Rate Mortgage Determined? 

The variable rate is determined using the prime rate of Canada. It fluctuates with the prime rate and will change every time the prime rate fluctuates. The prime rate is an interest rate that major banks and financial institutions use as a measure to set their rates for different credit products. It is influenced by the overnight rate set by the Bank of Canada, which is shaped by the cost of borrowing for the major financial institutions in Canada. Often rates will be advertised as 3.95% with prime – 1.20% written underneath it. This translate to prime rate (7.2%) – discount rate (1.20%) = your interest rate (3.95%).

Why do mortgage rates vary from province to province?

Pros and Cons Of A Variable Mortgage Rate? 

Pros

If you go with the variable rate you stand to save more money in comparison to a fixed rate depending on what’s happening with the prime rate from the central bank. This is because as the prime rate lowers, the interest rate on your mortgage lowers. When the prime rates lower, so does the variable rate meaning more money can go toward paying off the principal. The more money that goes into the principal, the less you pay on interest and the faster you can pay off the mortgage. 

Cons

However, if the prime rate goes up, the interest rate on your mortgage will go up as well. People who go for variable-rate mortgages need to have financial stability to be able to handle this risk. If there is no need to adhere to a strict budget a variable rate mortgage may be good for you.

Check out this mortgage documents checklist before applying for a home loan.

Which Loan Rate Do I Choose? 

When choosing between a variable and fixed-rate mortgage, you must consider a number of personal and economic factors to see which of the two works best for you. If interest rates are fairly low and you don’t expect it to fall further during your loan term then locking in a fixed rate is advisable. On the other hand, if you expect the rates to fall, a variable rate may be more preferable. However, do not forget that no one can 100% accurately predict how mortgage rates will change over time so be wary of the information you get. 

Aside from economic factors, you must also consider your own financial situation. Are you able to afford a sudden rise in payments if interest inflates? If not, the stability of a fixed rate will suit your needs more. However, if you are able to keep up with sudden changes, a variable rate may be worth it for the potential drops in interest. 

Pro Tip: Lock Your Rate In Advance When It’s Time To Renew

One of the best strategies somebody with a mortgage can take on is to lock down a mortgage rate well before the mortgage term ends. This can protect you from a short-term rate increase and will let you evaluate which term is right for your next mortgage cycle early on. Many lending institutions now provide rate-locks of 3, 4 and up to even 6 months – so taking advantage of this is a no-brainer.

Bottom Line

Whatever rate you choose will have to work well with your financial lifestyle, if you’re at a point financially where taking some risk is feasible, a variable rate mortgage could be the way to go. If you are risk-averse and prefer to make the same payments every month stick to a fixed-rate mortgage. In the end, whether you go for a variable or fixed-rate mortgage, your bank will be able to help you choose what suits you best.

Priyanka Correia, BComm avatar on Loans Canada
Priyanka Correia, BComm

Priyanka Correia is a Marketing Coordinator and personal finance expert at Loans Canada. Priyanka completed her Bachelor's degree in Marketing at Concordia University and has published work that has been mentioned in various news media. She is passionate about money management and educating Canadian consumers about how to take control of their financial lives.

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