Market comment: TIME TO SMILEWed, 19 Apr 2023
A pause in rate rises and signs of a price recovery
The Reserve Bank’s decision in April to leave interest rates where they are brought a sigh of relief from almost everyone connected to the property market. It was a welcome break from the string of ten consecutive monthly rises in 2022 and 2023 that have impacted property prices across Australia.
However, despite many doom and gloom articles in the media, the Sydney property market has been doing reasonably well, particularly in some suburbs that have outperformed other sections of the greater Sydney area.
Economist Chris Richardson, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, compared the housing market to the latest John Wick movie: “Despite being shot, stabbed and punched, house prices are already rising again; sales volumes are well up on pre-Covid levels [and] auction clearance rates are the highest in a year.”
In February, the Sydney auction clearance rate hit 69 per cent, which was the highest rate since October 2021. Some sections recorded clearance rates between 70 and 80 per cent, according to Domain data.
Sydney’s city and inner south region were the standouts, recording a clearance rate of 79.7 per cent which was up nine percentage points from February 2022. There were outstanding results in Blacktown (76.3 per cent), the eastern suburbs (74.8 per cent) and in the inner west (73.3 per cent).
Sydney housing values rose by 1.5 per cent in March, according to CoreLogic figures that show the price of the average Sydney property is now $1,230,581. March even saw prices grow a bit higher as strong buyer demand was met with low stock levels.
In Sydney, the average number of active bidders per auction lifted to 3.4 in March, after lingering below 3 during the spring selling season last year, figures from real estate agency Ray White show.
Much of the March rise was the result of changes to support for first-home buyers including changes to stamp duty, according to BresicWhitney chief executive and director of sales Thomas McGlynn: “If you were to pinpoint one change that has occurred that has given a lot of confidence to others was the first-home buyer stamp duty change.
“It has definitely given a lot more confidence to that demographic of buyers, which has given confidence to other demographics,” McGlynn said, noting that since January 16, first-home buyers have up to an extra $66,000 to spend at auction if they opt in to paying annual land tax, driving competition on homes worth up to $1.5 million.
Foreign buyers are also returning to the Australian market. Daniel Ho, MD of Chinese real estate portal Juwai IQI, says that Australia has now become the most popular country for Chinese homebuyers according to enquiries to the website.
This is supported by Fiona Yang, executive partner at Plus Agency, who says: “The pandemic-related uncertainty is passed. The closed borders are open, rents are hot, and these buyers are fed up with three years of lockdown. They are committed to Australia. They are ready to make quick decisions on real estate”.
[N.B. Treasury says it is expecting 350,000 new migrants to move to Australia in 2022-23 followed by another 300,000 in 2023-24 - adding up to 650,000 people over two financial years.
Australia's net annual immigration in the year up to September 2022 stood at 303,700 people - a 15-year high.]
Ray White NSW chief auctioneer Alex Pattaro said that even if more supply were to come onto the Sydney market, there were plenty of buyers waiting to acquire property: “The buyer pool is enormous. In the last 30 days, we’ve had the highest number of registered bidders in 12 months,” Pattaro said. “Even if there was an influx of stock we are confident the buyers will keep up with the volume.”
Mosman and Hunters Hill have the distinction of being two local government areas where every homeowner that resold made a profit last quarter despite a slowing market, CoreLogic figures show. The typical home sold in Mosman last quarter was owned for just under 11 years and made a profit of $436,000, median data shows.
The Northern Beaches area was not far behind, with almost 99 per cent of sellers making a profit.
Northern beaches homeowners sold after 10 years and netted a median profit of $527,500.
In fact, the vast majority of Sydney sellers – more than 91 per cent – were still making gains on sales of their homes.
Michael Yardney, in his Property Update for 25 March, says the Sydney market’s long term fundamentals are strong: “Sure, the value of many Sydney properties fell in 2022, but this is after recording a 27.7 per cent rise in housing values between October 2020 and January 2022, and now Sydney home values are down 11.4 per cent since peaking, taking roughly $132,000 off the median value of a dwelling.
“While Sydney property values may still fall a little further - it's a little too early to call the bottom of the market - buyers are back and the market is definitely "looking for a floor" and the Sydney property market is going to reset in 2023.
“And while prices have since cooled from their peak across the city, Sydney’s property market continues to fetch impressive prices, particularly in some of the most sought-after areas. After all, some of the city’s suburbs are so tightly held that an available property for sale comes around once in a blue moon with homeowners holding onto their houses for as long as 20 years,” he said.
Some Sydney suburbs have still managed to record loss-making sales in the last quarter, mostly in the apartment market where investors were more likely to lose money than owner-occupiers. Around one in 12 property sales were made at a loss, as shown in CoreLogic’s Pain & Gain report. This was the highest proportion of loss-making sales since mid-2019, when 9.3 per cent of homes sold at a loss and is up from 7.8 per cent the previous quarter.
Report author Eliza Owen confirmed losses were heavily skewed towards the apartment market, where 14.8 per cent of resales incurred a nominal loss compared to just 2.1 per cent of houses: “Sydney and Melbourne accounted for more than half of unit losses [nationwide]. There are particular pockets of risk and stagnant [price] growth that contribute to loss-making sales all the time, but in periods of a downturn those numbers become a bit extreme,” Owen said.
Botany Bay and surrounding suburbs such as Mascot and Pagewood had the highest rate of loss-making sales at 26.7 per cent, followed by the Parramatta (23.5 per cent), Ryde (23.2 per cent) and Strathfield (22.2 per cent) regions.
A four per cent tipping point?
There are concerns expressed by some financial journalists that a 4 per cent or higher cash rate could set off a flood of distressed property sales. The cause would be the inability of borrowers to make repayments on their loans because they weren’t adequately stress tested when they organised their financial arrangements.
Home buyers who acquired mortgages in the past two years were assessed on their ability to repay their loans if there were a 2.5 or 3.0 per cent increase in their interest rate; these levels have already been exceeded by the RBA’s recent hikes that have taken the cash rate to 3.6 per cent with no guarantee there aren’t more increases on the way.
SQM Research founder Louis Christopher says there is a real chance of seeing distressed property sales in the near future: “Obviously, it’s a matter of probability, and we think the probabilities would start rising north of 50 per cent of a hard landing in the economy and a double dip downturn in the housing market,” he told the Herald. “If we go over 4 per cent … [they] are very concerned, and they believe many of their borrowers will be forced to sell.”
AMP Capital chief economist Shane Oliver says we should wait until the effects of the recent rate hikes are fully known, and that this would take a while: “My inclination would be to think if you get above 4 per cent, that would create distressed selling,” he said. “But it hasn’t happened yet and that has given some confidence to some of us. If we keep going higher, every time we see an interest rate hike from the RBA it adds to the risk. There’s also the continuing unknowns from the flow-on effects of the hikes.”
PRD chief economist Dr Diaswati Mardiasmo felt a peak above 4 per cent was sure to happen: “A lot of us have prepared for a 4 per cent rate. It’s been on a lot of people’s minds that the peak is around four, so it’s more if it’s a slow or fast climb,” she said. “In terms of how it’s going to affect the whole market we aren’t going to see a massive crash because of it, but in certain pockets there will be a bigger problem, particularly places with house and land packages where there are lots of first home buyers.”
News.com.au’s Tarric Brooker has a more optimistic outlook: “According to an analysis by the RBA, 14.6 per cent of mortgage holders would find themselves with negative levels of spare cashflow after paying their loans based on a 3.6 per cent cash rate. At the time, a 3.6 per cent cash rate was a hypothetical benchmark under which the expected stress of mortgage holders could be gauged. But today it’s a reality.”
Mr Brooker says that faith in the property market and government intervention to keep prices high appears to be quite broadbased: “With faith for many that prices will bounce back and eventually soar to new heights, the recent drops in prices are seen as an opportunity to ‘buy the dip’ before the next property boom sends prices to even greater heights.
“One could also argue that faith in a property price recovery is depressing new listing volumes. December last year saw new listings nationally drop to the lowest level since at least 2008, a time when there were almost five million fewer Australians,” he said.
CoreLogic’s head of Australian residential research Eliza Owen said lenders would most likely help homeowners continue to pay their mortgages, rather than trigger a wave of distressed selloffs:
“They have a stake in the assets [i.e. mortgaged homes], so to have excessive levels of distressed selling would lower the value of these assets over time,” she said.
One option some borrowers have considered is switching to an interest-only loan but Ms Owen said few would actually need the support: “We haven’t seen that much stress evident from the high-level metrics,” she said.
“I don’t see this being a very widespread option; my guess is people will avoid it if they can because of the additional cost over the life of the loan, but it’s kind of reassuring that that kind of flexibility is available.”
Fixed rate mortgages a concern
There’s going to be a delay in the impacts felt by borrowers from the RBA’s interest rate increases because the million or so borrowers on fixed-rate mortgages will see their original loan terms expire sometime during the full year of 2023 and even into 2024. When this happens, the average mortgage of $604,000 will see monthly payments increased by more than $1100.
RBA assistant governor Chris Kent says ordinarily interest rates would feed quicker into the economy: “The lagged effect of the cash flow channel of monetary policy is likely to be somewhat elongated currently due to the high proportion of fixed-rate loans and sizeable buffers held by many borrowers,” he said.
“This means that it’s likely to take longer than usual to see the full effect of higher interest rates on household cash flows and household spending.”
Kent said the increase in interest rates through 2022 had lifted by about 1.1 percentage points of total household disposable income. He said by 2024, there would be a further lift of 1.5 percentage points in the impacts on household income from higher rates requiring adjustments to consumers’ spending and savings patterns.
Chris Joye, the co-founder and portfolio manager of fund manager Coolabah Capital, says as many as 15 per cent of borrowers could be at risk of default before Christmas. He warned that Australians should prepare for more discomfort as one in four Aussie home loans may switch from 2 per cent fixed rates to 6 per cent variable rates in 2023.
Mr Joye also believes that as interest rates rise and borrowers struggle to meet their mortgage repayments, many Australians will have to sell their homes in the second half of 2023. He advises hopeful first home buyers to start planning now and to look for properties that will become available once the market clears.
There’s also a problem for those trying to refinance fixed-rate mortgages who have become what are called ‘mortgage prisoners’. These are people trapped by mortgages they’re unable to renegotiate because they no longer meet the standards for loans set by lenders.
“There is without a doubt a big challenge for new mortgage holders over the past three years,” the executive director and head of research at K2 Asset Management, George Boubouras, told The Guardian. “Many are mortgage prisoners and a mortgage prisoner is unable to refinance because of the serviceability buffers.”
A serviceability buffer, used to help determine an applicant’s borrowing capacity, is the rate at which a lender assesses a customer’s ability to meet repayments. Home loans written between 2019 and 2021, when rates were at historic lows, were tested on an applicant’s ability to make repayments at 2.5 percentage points above the lending rate. That buffer was then increased to 3 percentage points.
But mortgage rates have risen by about 3.5 percentage points since May last year, in line with the rate increases of the Reserve Bank. This means many pandemic-era borrowers do not meet today’s lending standards, which in turn prevents them from getting a better deal from a rival lender.
First-home buyers get help
Figures from Domain show that the average first home buyer couple in Sydney would need to put half of their income towards mortgage repayments on an entry-level home, up from less than a third of their income two years ago.
Modelling from the 2023 Domain First Home Buyer Report found that a young Sydney couple on the average income would need to put 50.9 per cent of their earnings towards initial mortgage repayments if they purchased at Sydney’s entry-level house price of $851,500. That’s up from 31.5 per cent of income in 2021.
Unit buyers are only slightly better off. They can expect to see 34.2 per cent of their income chewed up by repayments on a $571,500 entry-level apartment, up from 25.5 per cent in 2021.
The only positives for first-home buyers come from declining property prices reducing the time it takes the average couple save a 20 per cent deposit for an entry-level home. They would have to save for six years and eight months for a house deposit, down 13 months year-on-year, and for four years and seven months for a unit, a drop of eight months year-on-year.
The modelling assumes a couple earning a combined post-tax income of $115,204 – the average for 25 to 34-year-olds in Sydney – and saved 20 per cent of their income.
Research author and University of Sydney Senior Lecturer in Urbanism Dr Laurence Troy said first home buyers, particularly in Sydney, wouldn’t be able to afford the costs of buying a home unless they were on fairly high wages: “Saving up and living frugally won’t work to get you over the line.”
Dr Troy said many first-home buyers rely on family help to get into the housing market, including the family’s paying a deposit or allowing family members to live at home rent-free: “If you’re living in Sydney and trying to buy into Sydney, the only way you can do it is through family support in a fairly significant way,” he said.
Commonwealth Bank’s head of Australian economics Gareth Aird has seen a decline in home buyer demand since the Reserve Bank first hiked rates in May last year: “Even though prices have fallen, the reduction in borrowing capacity has been greater. It’s actually become a lot worse for first home buyers because the rise in serviceability makes it harder to get into the market in the first place.
“The only thing that’s gotten better is that the deposit required is a little bit less because house prices are down, but they still have more money going out each month on rent when they’re trying to save.”
Politics and Land Tax
For the first time in twelve years NSW has a Labor government, and like all governments, this one has policies that will affect the Sydney property market. Housing is, and should be, a major concern for the incoming administration.
The Herald’s Michael Koziol summarised the present state of play: “The new Labor government will inherit a shrinking pipeline of new housing across Greater Sydney, with dwelling approvals running more than 15 per cent below the five-year average, threatening to exacerbate the housing and rental affordability crisis gripping the city.
“The latest available figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show dwelling approvals in 2022-23 are tracking even lower than the previous financial year - 20,559 at the end of January compared to 22,239 in 2021-22. House and apartment approvals were both down.
“Similarly, the NSW government’s Urban Development Program dashboard showed that in the 12 months to September, new dwelling completions in Greater Sydney totalled 23,350 - 32 per cent lower than the five-year average. Greater Sydney includes the Central Coast and Blue Mountains.
“Those figures lead the planning department to predict another 151,000 homes will be supplied in Sydney over the next five years in a medium-growth scenario - a decrease of 16.4 per cent on the preceding five years,” he wrote.
For those now looking to enter the housing market, the new Labor government will spend $722 million on a first-home buyers scheme axing stamp duty for properties up to $800,000 and discounting it on dwellings up to $1 million.
These measures will replace the Coalition's stamp duty reforms which were passed by State Parliament last year. Until July 1 first-home buyers will be able to opt-in for land tax instead of paying stamp duty on their purchase, saving them an estimated $66,000 on the transaction. After that date the Labor government’s stamp duty exemption begins.
Under the current policy, introduced by the Coalition on January 16 this year, first home buyers can choose to pay an annual property tax on homes valued up to $1.5 million. They do not have to pay stamp duty of up to $66,000, which they can use as part of their home deposit instead.
About 2330 first home buyers have already opted for paying the annual property tax, according to figures released by the former government. The tax option was available to first home buyers who had purchased since November 11 last year.
After July 1 the property tax option will be scrapped and first-home buyers who purchase properties in NSW up to $850,000 will be exempt from paying stamp duty, with concessional rates of stamp duty on properties up to $1 million.
Dr Peter Tulip, chief economist at the Centre for Independent Studies, said while both the Coalition and Labor had policies to reduce stamp duty, Labor’s policy was more generous for those purchasing up to $850,000. Because of this, some first home buyers would wait to purchase under the increased price caps.
“The Labor Party’s policy is more generous for most home buyers because Perrottet’s reduction in stamp duty was offset by an increase in annual land tax,” he said. “The different policies benefit different groups of buyers and so some of them are going to want to get in before July and others will wait until after July,” he said, noting he expected those who rush to use the property tax would have a minimal impact on prices.
McGrath Parramatta’s Amit Nayak said those looking to buy detached houses in the region may rush to use the property tax option, but that other first home buyers will delay purchasing until Labor’s policy is introduced: “I would say they will wait because the apartment buyers will have the appetite to buy the villas or townhouses [priced above the current cut-off for an exemption],” he said.
A key housing reform policy of the incoming federal Labor government – the Housing Australia Future Fund - has met opposition in Parliament and is now being negotiated with the crossbench. The government’s plans for a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund won’t be implemented without support from the Greens who want to include an additional $5 billion a year for social and affordable housing, and a national agreement to cap rent increases for two years. This effectively puts the deal on hold until after the May federal budget.
Renters still have problems
The chronic shortage of rental properties continues to worsen. Australia’s national vacancy rate sits at 1.47 per cent. CoreLogic’s data shows that unit rents are still rising in Sydney, up 18.1 per cent in the past year in what Domain has dubbed a ‘landlords’ market’.
CoreLogic’s senior analyst, Tim Lawless, says renters face a serious lack of available properties: "We saw the vacancy rate drop to a new record low in March, at just 0.9 per cent across the combined capital cities. "I think any tenant is probably looking to stay in their lease for longer rather than brave the very tight rental market conditions," he said.
Mr Lawless says he does see some signs that rental growth is starting to ease: "I think this probably reflects simply the fact that renters are approaching a ceiling and what they're willing or able to pay, rather than any rebalancing in the supply demand equation for rental markets."
Tenants’ groups have suggested a cap on rent increases, but this has been ruled out by new Labor premier Chris Minns who said: “We believe that would have an impact on supply, and we need to get supply going. The vast majority of rental market and new supply in the NSW marketplace has got to be provided by the private sector.”
The latest PropTrack figures show that the beachside suburb of Clovelly in Sydney’s eastern suburbs tops the list of the 10 Australian suburbs that saw the largest dollar increase in median weekly rents year-on-year in February for both houses and units, with a current median weekly rent of $1995 – and a change in median rental price of $633.
And the trend isn’t only in the wealthy beachside suburbs. Several ordinary inner Sydney areas made the list, including Balmain East, where rents have risen by $375, Eveleigh, where they have jumped by $208, and Zetland, where the current median weekly rent is $780, representing an increase of $150.
PropTrack senior economist Eleanor Creagh told news.com.au’s Alexis Carey it was a “critical issue” affecting regions across the country: “There’s a lack of rentals and very strong demand, which is outstripping supply, driving weekly rents higher and vacancy rates lower,” she explained.
“Since the pandemic, vacancy rates have plunged by half, which illustrates just how tight rental conditions are.”
She said that during the pandemic, rental households got smaller, with the share of people living alone increasing. At the same time, many investors also sold off their properties, and few were buying, which kept supplies constrained.
Doug Driscoll, chief executive of real estate firm Starr Partners, told news.com.au this is part of a familiar pattern: “It starts at the very top at the salubrious suburbs, with people no longer able to live there either because they can’t afford it, or because there are so few properties available, which means there is so much demand,” he explained.
“They then move to other suburbs and it keeps trickling all the way down. It starts in metropolitan Sydney, with people going from the inner ring to more of an outer ring … and then more and more west. Then they start going out of the metropolitan areas altogether because they can’t afford even the outer ring, so they move to regional towns, and that causes real issues.”
The National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC) estimates that around 331,000 households are already in rental stress, and around 46,500 households are experiencing homelessness.
It estimates that 190,000 more households will form between 2023 and 2033, and its modelling shows that not enough properties will be built to catch up to this demand, with a total deficit of around 106,300 dwellings to be expected over the five years to 2027.
NHFIC believes just 148,500 new dwellings will be added to the national housing stock this financial year, and that total will drop to 127,500 in 2024-25.
The corporation predicts the biggest drop will be in apartments and multi-density dwellings. It expects a net 57,000 homes a year to be built over the next five years, 40 per cent down on levels experienced in the late 2010s.
“The rapid return of overseas migration — together with a supply pipeline constrained by decade-high construction costs and significant increases in interest rates — is exacerbating an already tight rental market," NHFIC chief executive Nathan Dal Bon told ABC News.
"NHFIC analysis shows housing affordability and supply are likely to remain challenging for some time, underscoring the need for a holistic approach to mitigate the housing pressures Australians are facing.”
The 32,000 renters who’ve benefited from the National Affordability Rental Scheme (NRAS), a program that paid property owners a subsidy in exchange for them keeping rents on new homes below the market rate for a decade, are especially concerned now that the program has is winding up.
The scheme was scrapped by the Abbot government in 2014 but homes already participating were grandfathered and no new ones could join. Many NRAS properties have already exited the plan and all subsidies will have expired by 2026.
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