Some of you may recall a month ago I did an entry on why weekly and bi-weekly payments really were not as good as they were cracked up to be. Today I’m going to be my second piece in the mortgage series, this time looking at fixed rate mortgages and their mechanics.

Despite homes being the largest purchases most people make, and mortgages often being a households largest monthly expense, I’m never ceased to be amazed at how many people really don’t have a sound understanding of how they work. So this is my little attempt to shed some light on them.

We’re not going to get into the whole buying high/low thing today, just examine the basic structure of mortgages and how they work.

A lot of people are likely familiar with graphs like the one above if they’ve taken out a mortgage… at least I’d hope they would be, at the very least your bank or mortgage broker should have tried to explain one to you regardless of what type of mortgage you have.

It shows you how over time your equity builds exponentially, while your principle owing correspondingly decreases. The values of these and the proportions paid off can change substantially depending on the variables, but the general pattern remains the same.

The basic gist is that it shows you how little equity you make up in the early years, but as time goes by, more and more of your payments go toward equity rather then interest. Just from this example you can see you make up more equity in the last 9 years then you do in the first 16.

While it’s a pretty pattern, the only number in there that matters to me is the amount owing. The equity really doesn’t mean a lick. All that matters is what you owe.

When your mortgage comes up for renewal, at that point it matters what the bank thinks your place is work matters in relation to what you owe… or if you are selling it matters what someone is willing to pay for it… but the rest of the time, what you think your home is worth, or what your neighbours house sells for, or what the cities median price is, really doesn’t mean a damn thing.

Alright, end of rant. Now lets get on to how 5 year fixed rate mortgages work, and I think the best way to do that is to work through an example. So lets say we purchased an “average residence” in Edmonton in January of 1988, with a conventional 25 year amortization, 5-year fixed terms. These a probably the most popular type of mortgages in Canada.

In January 1988 we bought a house, and paid $77,792 for it, which was the residential average at the time. In reality we would have needed a significant down-payment, but for the sake of this example we’re going to ignore that and say we financed the entire thing. Down-payments are really not material for what we’re doing here today.

So we walk into the bank, finance $77,792 at the going rate for a 5-year fixed of the day at 11.73%. Which result in monthly payments of $804 for the next 5 years… at which point our mortgage comes up for renewal.

Here is a graph kind of incorporating the first two graphs. We have the monthly payments and we see the amount owing declining, telling us what we owe the bank as of each January. We now find ourselves in January of 1993, and owning the bank $74,271… which means we haven’t made up a whole lot of equity in the first five years, less then 5% in this example.

This doesn’t give us all the variables needed to give us our next payment though (ignoring that you can already see in on the chart), for that we need the interest rates…

If the interest rate in 1993 was still 11.73% like it was five years earlier we would still be paying $804 a month… but fortunately for us, interest rates came down!

Now the 5-year fixed rate is 9.47%, we owe the bank $74,271 and now our amortization is down to 20 years… so for the next five years our payments will be $691 a month.

Skip ahead to 1998, our term is up and we do it again, we owe $66,274, rate are down again, now at 6.9% and amortization is 15 years… so we’ll pay $592 a month.

Do it all again in 2003, $51,213 at 6.26% over 10 years… equals $563 a month.

Finally we get to 2008, only five years left, the last renewal! $29,272 owing, the rate actually rose slightly to 6.81% so we’ll be paying slightly more, $577 a month…. but come 2013, that house will be entirely paid off.

What I want to show in the graph is that with our style of mortgages, even with fixed rate ones, every five years your payments will change depending on the going mortgage rate of the time. In our example we were very fortunate in that interest rates just kept on going down, so the monthly payments kept dropping for the most part.

What the fixed rate mortgage shields you from is upward fluctuations of interest rates. As you can see from the graphs, the only interest rates that mattered to us were in the shaded areas, but outside of that they shot up and down quite a bit.

Just take our first renewal for example… if it hadn’t came up until 1994, we would have saved even more since rates dropped over 2 points in that year… but if it had came up in 1995 we would have paid even more since rates spiked that year. So, it can kind of be luck of the draw when your mortgage comes up for renewal, but over time it tends to even out.

The advantage of fixed rate mortgages is that you know what you’ll be paying every month, you don’t have to worry about your payments swinging as they would with a variable rate. The drawback is that you often pay a premium of a point or two more for this stability when you lock in.

So, should interest rates shoot up, at least your protected until your next renewal… should they stay about the same, you lose out because you’re paying a premium for the fixed rate… and should rates go down, you really lose out because you’re not only paying a premium, but you’re paying it on top of a higher rate.

Over the last quarter century we’ve seen rates consistently dropping, which have made variable rate mortgages very attractive… but today, the thing to keep in mind that that we’ve reached a point where rates really cannot get any lower… which means they can only go up, and it’s when rates are rising that fixed rate mortgages are not only safer, but often cheaper.

So it really depends on what you’re comfortable with, and whether you feel the premium you pay is worth it.

The last thing I want to touch on is the differences between Canada and the US when it comes to fixed rate mortgages. As mentioned before, traditionally 25 years has been the normal amortization period, and 5-year fixed the most popular terms.

South of the border, it’s a little different. There, 30 year amortizations are the most common period, and 30 year fixed the most common term. That’s right, with one of those you know exactly what you’ll be paying the entire life of your mortgage.

So using the purchase from our example above, and the going rate for 30-year fixed mortgages in January of 1988, we would have been paying $715 a month (for a better apples-to-apples idea, if the term was 25-year fixed it would have been $737 a month).

So, as you can see, by doing it with traditional Canadian 5-yr terms, we saved a lot of money… but this is because interest rates were dropping. If rates were going up, we would have done a lot worse. Basically it just boils down to that we’re more exposed to market fluctuations here in Canada, and that can be both very beneficial, or very detrimental.

One interesting thing you may have noted is that in 1988, the US 30-year fixed rate is actually lower then the Canadian 5-year fixed rate. This seems counter-intuitive as generally when you go into a bank, the longer the term you ask for, the higher the rate.

TD for example, their current advertised rates are 5-yr fixed at 5.45% and 10-yr fixed at 6.7%. Pretty typical.

Same actually also holds true in the US… this is really more a statement about the rates in the US just being more competitive, cause today you can get a 30-yr fixed from Wachovia for 4.75%… lower then our 5-yr fixed. So if you didn’t think it was bad enough that they can deduct mortgage interest from their taxes, they also get much better interest rates. So, if you’ve ever wondered why our banks are so profitable, there is a big part of the answer, Canadians pay a whole lot more interest.