Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. says the country’s total residential mortgage debt totalled $2.16 trillion as of February this year, up 3.4 per cent year-over-year and representing the slowest growth in 23 years.

The federal housing agency said in a new report that higher mortgage costs and uncertainty around the Bank of Canada lowering its key interest rate led to softer home sales and prices across many regions in the second half of 2023.

However, it said the slowdown in mortgage growth could be short-lived. 

The agency expects the rate of growth for mortgage debt to increase amid forecasts of higher home sales and prices in the coming years.

It said an anticipated decline in mortgage rates, along with population growth and increases in real disposable incomes, will likely fuel the turnaround.

"In a context where debt levels have never been so elevated and households are showing increasing warning signs of financial struggle, household debt vulnerability is becoming a primary area of concern," said CMHC deputy chief economist Tania Bourassa-Ochoa in a press release. 

"As homeowners find it more difficult to manage their monthly budgets, policymakers and the financial sector are on high alert when considering risks to the financial industry and the economy."

The report also said borrowers are continuing to opt for shorter-term, fixed-rate mortgages over traditional five-year fixed terms as they remain uncertain of the short- and medium-term mortgage rate outlook.

That's despite "noteworthy increases" in the discounts being offered by lenders on five-year, fixed-rate mortgages in the first two months of this year, which marked a reversal of the trend from the last half of 2023.

"Lenders are foreseeing potential rate cuts by the (Bank of Canada) occurring sooner than they anticipated last year and are seeking to lock in mortgages at relatively high rates," the report said.

Terms ranging from three years to less than five years remained the most popular choice, representing nearly 40 per cent of all lending for newly extended mortgages in February 2024. Variable-rate mortgages accounted for 15 per cent of all lending for newly extended mortgages.

The report showed the national mortgage delinquency rate hit 0.17 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year, still near historic lows, but trending up for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

It also highlighted the Big Six banks taking an increasing share of the market for extended mortgages.

In the fourth quarter of 2023, those banks' share grew 11.8 percentage points from last year, driven by increases in refinances and renewals. Other chartered banks and credit unions recorded decreases of 6.9 and 3.1 percentage points, respectively. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2024.