Affordability, Statistics and the Australian Housing Market.

Before I get into what could be a slightly ranty post about the Australian property market I feel it’s prudent to mention that I’m an owner-occupier, investor and would be regarded as being particularly well off when compared to the average Australian. Thus my views may be somewhat skewed by the fact that I have a vested interest in the property market. However I believe that there’s a lot of disinformation out there about housing prices and what constitutes “affordable” property, especially when the entire market is boiled down to single figures. What I intend to show you is that whilst Australian property is more than likely above fair value this does not preclude the average Australian family from owning their own home, nor are first home buyers priced completely out of the market.

There’s been a report circulating recently from NATSEM that says we’ll need a decade of flat housing prices in order for them to come back to affordable levels. This sparked quite the reaction in the media, strangely lacking any direct finger pointing that usually accompanies issues like this. There’s no question that the last decade has seen some extremely wild growth in the Australian property market and for years people have been predicting the ultimate downfall of the Australian housing market. The Global Financial Crisis was supposed to be the trigger that sent property prices tumbling but it had the opposite effect, with extremely low interest rates pulling many into the market and increasing demand significantly. Now that the pressure is back on with interest rates at their pre-GFC levels the question of affordable housing is a hot topic, but it’s not all bad news for those chasing the Australian dream.

For starters let’s dive into the (thankfully unbiased) figures from the NATSEM report. On the surface it looks bad for Australia with the median¹ house price being a whopping 7.3 times that of the median income, 50% higher than what it was back in 2001. However whilst I believe using the median as the measure is by far more intellectually honest than other measures it does hide some important information from the reader. Although the median Australian house price might be $417,000 that also means that 50% of all Australian houses are valued somewhere below that particular line. For first home buyers this means that they shouldn’t be shooting to buy a house at the median price since there is an ample amount of stock available at a much cheaper price bracket. The houses above the median then are usually more suited to those looking to upgrade and not those trying to break into the market.

For interest’s sake I’ve done some calculations based on some typical scenarios. The first is a median income earner attempting to buy a median house with a typical interest rate:

  • Income: $57,000 /year, $3,823.33 / month after tax.
  • Home loan: $396,150 ($417,000 house price, 5% deposit, 7.1% interest, principal and interest) =  $2,662.25 / month
  • Repayment as percentage of total income: 69.63%
In this situation I am in agreement with NATSEM that this is completely unaffordable. I believe that this is a pretty atypical situation however as a single person buying (or financing) a house should definitely not be shooting for a median property, opting instead for the lower end of the spectrum with smaller town houses or apartments. However a more typical scenario would be a young, childless couple (I’ll stick with median incomes) looking for their first home, shooting for the lower end so they can break into the market. Taking these factors into consideration we get:
  • Income: $114,000 /year, $7,646.66 / month after tax.
  • Home loan: $356,535 ($375,000 house price, 5% deposit, 7.1% interest, principal and interest) = $2,396.03 / month
  • Repayment as a percentage of total income: 31.33%
In this situation it’s starting to look a lot better with the percentage of total income spent on housing much closer to the 30% of total income that the banks usually use when determining loan size. The above scenario isn’t too far from the situation I was in when I purchased my first house back in 2007 and whilst it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to do (it was helped a lot by renting out the spare rooms) it was definitely possible. This doesn’t disprove the point that Australian house prices are unaffordable for median, single income earners however but even in 2001 it would’ve been a struggle.

Since the media hasn’t played the blame game yet I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring on this one. Investors who are negative gearing would be an easy target with this one and they’re usually the first to get blame for high housing prices. However in Australia the vast majority of property, to the tune of 68.90%, is owner-occupied (I.E. people who own it live in it). The remaining 31.10% is investors but the vast majority of investors only own 2 properties, their home and another investment. It then seems infeasible for investors to be solely responsible for housing price gains when the vast majority of property is in the hands of owner-occupiers or one time investors. The price rises logically then come from the majority, but how are they doing so?

Simply put it’s people leveraging the equity in their own homes in order to upgrade to a bigger, better home whilst keeping the loan repayments at a similar level. The initial 2001 – 2004 boom meant that many had enough equity to upgrade and many did so over the years. Of course being rational actors they attempted to maximize their sale price in order to reduce the loan on the next property and this put an upward pressure on housing prices, both on the low (the one they were selling) and high (the one they were buying) end of the market. The interest rate scare of 2007-2008 put enough pressure on people to curtail this behaviour for a while, but the GFC dashed those high rates and the upgrades began again in earnest.

I’ve long been of the opinion that there will never be a house price crash, instead I foresee a long time of stagnant or small negative growth whilst wages catch up to bridge the affordability gap. The simple fact is that prices can only drop significantly if people are forced to sell and although many first home buyers who bought in during the lowest interest rates are feeling the pressure now they form only a small part of the market, not enough to trigger a price collapse and most will simply delay selling until conditions improve.

It is unfortunate that the Australian dream is out of reach for a median single income earner, but many factors point towards housing becoming more affordable for them in future. The government could do a much better job of incentivizing the construction of low cost housing as current market conditions favour bigger, higher cost houses. Additional land releases and incentives for desirable, low cost housing would also go a long way to putting a downward pressure on house prices. It’s not a problem that can be fixed overnight either and we’ll need long lasting reforms in order to keep housing affordable, lest the prices rise and the cycle start all over again.

¹The median in statistics refers to the value in which 50% of the total data set is above that value and 50% is below it. It’s much more resilient to use this figure when you have outliers on either side of the equation which in the case of Australian property and wage figures there are many. Using the average would then be less representative of the real world.

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