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It’s not unusual to find you owe some money to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) after filing your personal tax returns. Especially if you have neglected doing them for a few years. And like any other unexpected expense, you need to tighten your belt buckle, work even harder and try to find ways to eliminate the debt before you run up lots of interest charges and late payment penalties.

You may find other immediate obligations are more pressing, so if you’re not able to settle the tax debt right away, it is best to stay in touch with CRA and let them know your plan to reduce and eliminate the debt. They do have some flexibility. (This is a good way to manage all debt, not just tax debt.)

Occasionally we encounter homeowners whose tax debt is so large it cannot be readily paid through the normal course of life. The end result is a debt that can’t be negotiated away, with a creditor you can’t afford to ignore.

In recent months, we have dealt with several homeowners who found themselves in this predicament. In these instances, the smallest CRA debt was $40,700 and the largest more than $200,000. In each case, the debtor also owed money elsewhere – and had significant credit card balances and other unsecured debt. The size of the problem was way beyond the norm.

This seems to happen more often to small business owners and self-employed individuals. Regular folks are not immune though; we recently met a family with an unexpected $32,000 tax debt incurred as a result of selling an investment property and triggering a taxable capital gain.

You might think all these folks could just tap into their personal line of credit or take out a loan to pay this off, but these solutions were not available to them.

Fortunately, if you own a home and have decent equity, sometimes a creative mortgage financing solution can help clean things up, even if the amounts due are substantial, bank accounts have been garnished or even liens have been placed on your property.

Ways home equity can be used to pay very large CRA arrears

Keep in mind, when there is a large CRA debt, very few traditional lenders want to complete a mortgage refinance before the debt is remedied. In such a predicament, there are several ways home equity can be used to pay off CRA debt:

  1. If you already have a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC), and there is sufficient room to pay the tax debt, this can make tons of sense. You basically just write a cheque and be done with it. The interest rate is probably around prime + 0.5%, and that might be as good as it gets in these situations. This will solve the immediate problem; then you need a plan to reduce your HELOC balance by saving aggressively and paying it down. Or, ultimately you may decide it makes sense to refinance and roll the HELOC balance into your mortgage.
  2. Borrow money from a family member or close friend, pay the debt, then consider refinancing your mortgage and repay your benefactor.
  3. Borrow money from a private second mortgage lender, pay the debt, then refinance down the road. The length of time you wait to refinance depends on the strength of the file, which lender currently holds your first mortgage and when that mortgage is set to mature. A few “B lenders” have second-position financing options, which may suit this approach.
  4. Refinance the first mortgage to a “B lender” (alternative lender). The new mortgage amount is ideally large enough to clear CRA completely, and cover all fees and other debts.
  5. When there’s insufficient equity to pay CRA in full, it may be time for a negotiated settlement. My own experiences along these lines involve trustees who will file a consumer proposal on behalf of the debtor. Others report they’ve had success with skilled tax accountants.

The right solution will depend on the circumstances of each situation. It’s also important to note there are circumstances where homeowners will not be good candidates for eventual traditional lending no matter how we solve the immediate problem. This often happens when:

  • Their income doesn’t meet the stress test qualification rules and they may need to work with alternative lenders allowing higher debt service ratios
  • They’re self-employed with income that’s difficult to verify by traditional methods
  • Their personal credit history has shut the door to traditional lenders (e.g., multiple insolvencies or recent late mortgage payments)

So, let’s examine the scenarios where each of these approaches is most appropriate.


Scenario 1. Homeowner’s finances and credit are in good shape. The only issue is a large CRA debt where no traditional lender wants to complete a mortgage refinance before the debt is remedied.

This lack of interest by traditional lenders is common when there’s a large CRA debt. CRA is a very powerful creditor which, in some instances, can take preference over all other creditors. This means we need to fix the CRA problem first, and then find the right loan to get the costs as low as possible.

The cheapest solution is to consider asking a family member or close friend if they’ll lend you the money for a short period of time (option 2 above). Funds may only be required for a month or two. If you go this route, your real estate lawyer should be involved to protect your benefactor’s interests. As soon as you can prove to an institutional lender that there’s no tax debt owing, it’s then possible to refinance the traditional way, and pay back your emergency loan hero.

Scenario 2. If you don’t have someone who can bail you out via a loan, then you would move to the second option, which is working with an experienced mortgage broker who can find a suitable lender willing to grant you a second mortgage. Ideally, that mortgage will be open without prepayment penalty. That’s hard to find with a private mortgage, so if the terms would not allow the loan to be open immediately, then having it open after a few months is also a good option. As with the first option, once you have proof of payment for CRA arrears, you should be in fine shape to refinance your primary mortgage with your current lender. That may save prepayment penalties too, depending on your lender.

Scenario 3.Not only is there CRA debt, but the credit history is weak, resulting in a low score. It will take time to bring the file back to traditional lender status. In this case, your best option is to refinance the mortgage with an alternative lender, or first secure a second mortgage for a year or two. Our goal in this scenario is to determine what kind of lender will take on your deal once the situation is fixed; and we will recommend the lowest cost and least painful overall approach.

Scenario 4. CRA tax arrears and other unsecured debt exceeds the amount of equity that can be extracted. Keep in mind, though, if the CRA has already placed a lien on your home, you are unlikely to be able to negotiate a discounted settlement with them.

In this scenario, the homeowners might work with a trustee to negotiate the terms of a consumer proposal. At that point, all unsecured debts, including the CRA debt, are packaged together, and most proposals agree to repay a certain amount of money (usually $x per month) to all creditors over the next five years. With no further interest costs and late payment penalties.

Once the proposal has been accepted by the creditors, it might be possible that a mortgage broker experienced in this sort of lending can arrange a second mortgage to complete a lump-sum payout of the consumer proposal, or even refinance directly to an alternative lender to pay the reduced debt amount

The takeaway

As you can see, when you own your own home there are many options to address the issue of large CRA tax arrears impacting your borrowing power. Obviously, some real estate markets lend themselves to this approach better than others – the more equity you have in your home, the more likely one of these solutions might work.

The key is to deal with the issue ASAP. This situation will not work itself out and CRA will not give up. Oftentimes indecision and paralysis make the situation worse than it ever needed to be.

During the process, it is best to stay in contact with your CRA case officer, and explain you are looking at different ways to raise capital to settle your debt. The process can be painful, but having the right experts on your side will make all the difference.

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Thanks to tighter mortgage qualification rules and higher-priced real estateparticularly in the greater Vancouver and Toronto areasit’s not always easy to qualify for a mortgage on your own merits.

You may very well have a great job, a decent income, a husky down payment and perfect credit, but that still may not be enough.

When a lender crunches the numbers, their calculations may indicate too much of your income is needed to service core homeownership expenses such as your mortgage payment, property taxes, heating and condo maintenance fees (if applicable).

In mortgage-speak, this means your debt service ratios are too high and you will need some extra help to qualify. But you do have options.

A co-signer can make all the difference

A mortgage co-signer can come in handy for many reasons, including when applicants have a soft or blemished credit history. But these days, it seems insufficient income supporting the mortgage application is the primary culprit.


We naturally tend to think of co-signers as parents. But there are also instances where children co-sign for their retired/unemployed parents. Siblings and spouses often help out too. It’s also possible for more than one person to co-sign a mortgage. A co-signer is likely to be approved when the lender is satisfied he/she will help lessen the risk associated with loan repayment.

Under the microscope

When you bring a co-signer into the picture, you are also taking their entire personal finances into consideration. It’s not just a simple matter of checking their credit.

Your mortgage lender is going to need a full application from them in order to grasp their financial picture, including information on all properties they own, any debts they are servicing and all of their own housing obligations. Your co-signer will go through the wringer much like you have.

What makes a strong co-signer?

The lender’s focus is mainly centred around a co-signer’s income coupled with a decent credit history. Some people think that if they have tons of equity in their home (high net worth) they will be great co-signers. But if they are primarily relying on CPP and OAS while living mortgage free, this is not going to help you qualify for a mortgage.


The best co-signer will offer strengths you currently lack when filling out a mortgage application on your own. For instance, if your income is preventing you from qualifying, find a co-signer with strong income. Or, if your issue is insufficient credit, bring a co-signer on board who has healthy credit.

Co-signer options

There are typically two different ways a co-signer can take shape:

  1. The co-signer becomes a co-borrower. This is like having a partner or spouse buy the home alongside a primary applicant. This involves adding the support of another person’s credit history and income to the application. The co-signer is placed on the title of the home and the lender considers this person equally responsible for the debt if the mortgage goes into default.
  2. The co-signer becomes a guarantor. In this scenario, he/she is backing the loan and vouching you’ll pay it back on time. The guarantor is responsible for the loan if it goes into default. Not many lenders process applications with guarantors, as they prefer all parties to share in the ownership. But some people want to avoid co-ownership for tax or estate planning purposes (more on this later).

Nine things to keep in mind as a co-signee

  1. It is a rare privilege to find someone who is willing to co-sign for you. Make sure you are deserving of their trust and support.
  2. It is NOT your responsibility to co-sign for anyone. Carefully think about the character and stability of the people asking for your help, and if there is any chance you may need your own financial flexibility down the road, think twice before possibly shooting yourself in the foot.
  3. Ask for copies of all paperwork and be sure you fully understand the terms before signing.
  4. If you co-sign or act as a guarantor, you are entrusting your personal credit history to the primary borrowers. Late payments hurt both of you, so I recommend you have full access to all mortgage and tax account information to spot signs of trouble the instant they occur.
  5. Understand your legal, tax and even your estate’s position when considering becoming a co-signer. You are taking on a potentially large obligation that could cripple you financially if the borrower(s) cannot payA prudent co-signer may insist the primary applicants have disability insurance protecting the mortgage payments in the event of an income disruption due to poor health. Some will also insist on life insurance.
  6. A prudent co-signer may insist the primary applicants have disability insurance protecting the mortgage payments in the event of an income disruption due to poor health. Some will also insist on life insurance.
  7. Try to understand upfront how many years the co-borrower agreement will be in place, and whether you can change things mid-term if the borrower becomes able to assume the original mortgage on their own.
  8. There can be implications with respect to your personal income taxes. You may accumulate an obligation to pay capital gains taxes down the road. This should be discussed this with your tax accountant.
  9. Co-signing impacts Land Transfer Tax Rebates for first-time homebuyers. The rebate amount is reduced based on the percentage of ownership attributed to the co-signer.

Tips from a real estate lawyer

We spoke with Gord Mohan, an Ontario real estate lawyer, for unique insights based on his 22 years of experience.

“The cleanest way to deal with these situations is for the third party (which is typically a parent) to guarantee the main applicant’s mortgage debt obligation,” Mohan says. “This does not require the guarantor to appear on the title to the property, and so it prevents most later complications.”

Following are five key suggestions from Mohan:

  • Co-signers should seek independent legal advice to ensure they fully understand their obligations and rights.
  • All parties should have updated wills to address their intentions upon death and give their executor clear direction with respect to their ownership.
  • Many co-signers try to minimize future tax impact by opting for 1% ownership and having a private agreement that the borrowers will indemnify them or make them full owners if there is a tax bite down the road.
  • Some co-signers try to avoid future tax consequences completely by having their real estate lawyer draw up a “bare trust agreement”, which spells out that the co-signer has zero beneficial interest in the property.A bare trust agreement can come in handy for the Land Transfer Tax (LTT) rebate, enabling the co-signer to apply for a refund from the Ministry of Finance – LTT bulletin.
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