Real Estate

Buying A House in Canada: A Guide to Buying Your First Home

buying a house

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An essential step-by-step guide to buying a house in Canada.

Across Canada, money-savvy millennials are taking the plunge into homeownership, knowing that it’s one of the best long-term investments that they can make.

Whether you’re buying a house, condo, or townhome, the process can be a bit daunting and you may not be sure of where to start. Read our step-by-step guide about how to buy your first home in Canada, so you can close with confidence.

Step 1: Save for a Down Payment

Before you start shopping for real estate, your first step is to save up money for a down payment. A “down payment” is the amount of money that you put towards the purchase of a home. In general, the larger your down payment, the easier it is to obtain a mortgage.

As you start saving, you might ask: how much do I need to save for a down payment? The minimum amount depends on the home’s purchase price. In Canada, people typically spend between 5% and 20% of the purchase price on a down payment.

Another reason to beef up your down payment? To avoid paying the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) mortgage default insurance. This hefty expense, calculated based on the size of the mortgage and down payment, is designed to protect the lender, and typically can only be foregone with a down payment of 20% or more. So start saving now!

Step 2: Save For Closing Costs

While saving for a down payment should be a top priority, put aside some money (generally 1.5 to 4% of the home purchase price) to cover future closing costs.

These are legal and administrative fees paid at the closing of a real estate transaction and generally range from 1.5% to 4% of the selling price. It’s important to save for these expenses in advance to buying a home, so you’re not in the red when it’s time to close on your home.

Closing Costs May Include:

Closing CostDetails
Land transfer tax:Calculated as a percentage of the cost of your home, this tax varies by province and municipality. Note that in Ontario, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island, and in the City of Toronto, first-time home buyers are eligible for a tax rebate for this expense (more on this later).
Legal fees:You will need a lawyer to prepare your documents. Expect to pay around $1500 in legal fees and disbursements.
Title insurance:Some lenders require this insurance to protect themselves in case of an ownership dispute. This is purchased through your lawyer and usually costs up to $300.
Mortgage default insurance:Known as “CMHC insurance,” this is a mandatory insurance policy for those who purchase a house with less than a 20% down payment.
PST on Mortgage Default Insurance:Buyers have to pay sales tax on the CMHC insurance at the time of purchase.
GST/HST on a New Home Purchase:If you’re buying or building a new home or condo, tack GST/HST onto the purchase price.
Home inspection (optional):Though not mandatory, it is highly advisable to include a home inspection as a condition of your offer. This inspection could reveal invisible problems with the property before you buy. It costs around $500 per inspection.

This is not an exhaustive list—it doesn’t include property taxes or utility bills, for example—but it gives an idea of possible closing costs.

One savvy saving strategy is to set up a Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) to act as your “closing cost fund.” As the name suggests, there is no tax owed on the balance, interest, dividends, or capital gains—and it can be withdrawn tax-free.

The maximum amount in 2022 you can contribute to a TFSA saving or investing account is $6,000. You can see how this might be a great place to stash and grow your funds. At the same time, the money is easily cashed out if is needed for your closing costs.

Step 3: Prepare Your Finances

Get your finances in order before cruising the real estate listings. This process will help you estimate how much you can afford to buy, as well as organize critical documents required to support a mortgage application.

Check Your Credit Score

A credit score is a rating (between 300 and 900) used by lenders to assess the amount of risk they face in extending credit to you. In general, the lower your score, the less likely you are to be approved for a loan. Checking your credit rating allows you to see where you fall on the scale and figure out how to improve your credit score before submitting a mortgage application. If your score is lower than you’d like, there are actions you can take.

Organize Your Documentation

There are three things a lender will look at before giving you a mortgage: your current assets (what you own), your income, and your current level of debt. During the application process, here are a few items that your mortgage lender may request from you:

  • Government-issued photo identification (driver’s license, passport, etc.)
  • Proof of employment and income (pay stubs, T4s, income tax returns, bank statements, etc.)
  • Proof of a down payment and where it will come from (e.g. savings account, RRSP, the sale of another property, gift, etc.). If a family member is contributing towards your down payment, you will also need a signed letter from them acknowledging the purpose of the gift, and confirming that it is non-repayable.
  • Information about any other assets
  • Information about your debts (e.g. credit card balances, car loans or leases, lines of credit, student loans) or financial obligations (e.g. spousal/child support)

Having these documents handy is a house-hunting hack – it will ultimately prevent you from scrambling to get your act together at the last minute.

Step 4: Get a Mortgage Pre-Approval

With your finances in order, the next step is to figure out how much you can afford. A mortgage calculator is a good place to start, as you can factor in the amount of your down payment, your amortization (repayment) schedule, total selling price, and so forth to come up with a budget.

If you want something more official, go to a mortgage lender and get “pre-approved.” This means that a potential mortgage lender looks at your finances and determines how much money they will lend you and at what interest rate they will charge you.

It’s a bit of work, but pre-approval lets you:

  • Know the maximum amount of a mortgage you could qualify for
  • Estimate your mortgage payments
  • Lock in an interest rate for 60 to 120 days, depending on the lender

A pre-approved is not mandatory—but it is strongly advised. A pre-approval determines the home price you can afford, which essentially sets your budget for house-hunting.

In fact, some real estate agents require it before they will work with you. Having pre-approval signals that you’re a serious and eligible buyer, as well as helps avoid the heartbreak of finding your dream home, only to realize it’s way out of your budget.

One caveat: a mortgage pre-approval does not guarantee financing, and when making an offer, it’s not necessarily “safe” to remove the financing condition.

Once your offer is accepted, you’ll need to go back to your mortgage lender to get the official stamp of approval.

Step 5: Tap Into First-Time Home Buyer Incentives

Speaking of saving money, don’t forget to take advantage of these first-time homebuyer incentives in Canada. It could save you some serious dough.

IncentiveDetails
RRSP Home Buyer’s Plan:Allows first-time homebuyers to withdraw up to $35,000 from their RRSP (or $70,000 for a couple) to finance a down payment. The RRSPs must be at least 90 days old, and you must sign an agreement to build or buy a home; but as long as you repay within 15 years, the withdrawal is tax-free.
First-Time Home Buyers' (FTHB) Tax Credit:Offers a $5,000 non-refundable income tax credit amount on a qualifying home acquired after January 27, 2009. For an eligible individual, the credit will provide up to $750 in federal tax relief.
GST/HST New Housing Rebate:Reimburses eligible homeowners for part of the GST/HST paid on the purchase price or cost of building a new house, on the cost of substantially renovating or building a major addition onto an existing house, or on converting a non-residential property into a house.
Mortgage default insurance:Known as “CMHC insurance,” this is a mandatory insurance policy for those who purchase a house with less than a 20% down payment.
Land Transfer Tax Rebate:First-time home buyers in British Columbia, Ontario, or Prince Edward Island can receive a rebate on a portion of the land transfer tax that they paid. Also, first-time homebuyers in the City of Toronto are also eligible to receive a rebate on the city’s land transfer tax.

Step 6: Start House-Hunting!

You’ve got some money in the bank and a pre-approval in your hands. This is the exciting part of the home buying process – when you can start perusing the Canadian Multiple Listing Service (MLS) site in earnest.

Now hosted at Realtor.ca, this MLS provides a nationwide compilation of available real estate listings that you can filter in any number of ways: by location, size, type, amenities, price, and more.

It’s at this stage that you’ll want to seriously consider working with a real estate agent. This is not mandatory—buyers are allowed to manage their own sale—but it’s advised, especially for first-timers.

Real estate agents have expert information on every step of the process which can help relieve stress, and they are also part of a professional network of inspectors, insurance agents, and so forth who may become part of your team.

Final Words

Buying a first home can be a daunting experience for anyone. Long before the fun part—the actual search for your dream home—you have to figure out your finances, identify and exploit saving opportunities, get pre-approved for a mortgage, and hire your real estate agent, lawyer, and other professionals.

It might seem overwhelming, but for many millennials, it’s worth it to become a homeowner. If that’s you, this guide will help you get one step closer to having the keys to your new home in hand. Good luck!

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