Rise of the unit market behind record dwelling approvals

Rise of the unit market behind record dwelling approvals
Rise of the unit market behind record dwelling approvals

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released building approvals data for July 2014 last week. 

The data shows that there continues to be a strong pipeline of residential development in place.

Chart 1

Focussing on dwelling approvals nationally, there were 9,585 house approvals and 6,733 unit approvals over the month.  The number of dwelling approvals increased by 2.5% over the month with house approvals up 1.5% and unit approvals up 4.0%.  Although dwelling approvals have increased over the month they were -7.8% lower in July than the most recent peak in January 2014 when there were 17,698 dwelling approvals.  Although dwelling approvals increased over the month, they have fallen for eight of the past 12 months.

Chart 2

Monthly dwelling approvals data tends to be volatile so I also like to look at annualised data to see a trend.  Over the 12 months to July 2014 there were 195,227 dwelling approvals.  This was an all-time high number of annual approvals.  Unit approvals were also at an historic high level over the year while house approvals were well below their record high of 140,832 recorded over the 12 months to April 1989.  Over the 12 months to July 2014, unit approvals accounted for 43.6% of all dwelling approvals, up from 42.1% a year earlier.

Chart 3

Across the combined capital cities, there were a record high of 145,065 dwellings approved for construction over the 12 months to July 2014.  The number of capital city dwelling approvals has increased by 21.9% over the past year.  Over the year there were, 71,085 approvals for houses and 73,980 unit approvals with house approvals up 20.8% and unit approvals 22.9% higher.

Chart 4

Across the individual capital cities, Brisbane has recorded the greatest increase in dwelling approvals over the year (44.5%) followed by: Sydney (29.0%), Perth (26.6%) and Adelaide (25.1%).  Dwelling approvals are lower over the year in Darwin (-14.5%) and Canberra (-7.6%) while Melbourne (10.9%) and Hobart (11.7%) have recorded only moderate rises in dwelling approvals. 

Despite certain cities recording significant rises in dwelling approvals, Sydney and Melbourne have accounted for more than 57% of all capital city dwelling approvals over the past year.

Chart 5

A key driver of the overall increase in dwelling approvals has been the rising prominence of the unit market. 

Over the past year, the increase in unit approvals has been greater than the increase in house approvals in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.  Although unit approvals have recorded greater increases in these cities, there has been a substantial decline in unit approvals across Hobart and falls in both Darwin and Canberra.

Chart 6

With more than half of all capital city dwelling approvals for units as opposed to houses, all individual capital cities except for Adelaide (31.1%), Perth (25.0%) and Hobart (9.0%) are seeing a majority of approvals for units.  In Sydney, 68.3% of dwelling approvals were for units over the past year, elsewhere 52.1% were for units in Melbourne, 56.0% in Brisbane, 62.0% in Darwin and 57.6% in Canberra. 

Sydney has consistently approved more units than houses since 1993 and Darwin has consistently approved more units than houses since 2003, while across the other cities it is a relatively new phenomenon.   Melbourne has only been approving more units than houses since mid-2012, in Brisbane it has occurred since mid-2013 and in Canberra since mid-2010.

Of course there is increasing levels of demand for units but particularly in Melbourne and Brisbane the number of units in the pipeline is largely untested.  Unless the introduction of supply is closely managed there is a potential risk of unit oversupply.

With dwelling approvals at historic high levels, dwelling construction will continue to help bolster GDP as engineering construction.  The challenge will be whether dwelling construction is enough to offset the fall in engineering construction and it seems that it probably won’t be. 

Construction work done data for the June quarter showed that residential construction accounted for 25.8% of total work done compared to 57.2% attributable to engineering.  At its absolute peak residential construction accounted for just over half of the value (50.2%) of all work done.  It is likely that residential dwelling construction alone will not be able to offset the fall in mining investment.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that all of these approvals will come to fruition in the short-term. Unless there is ongoing demand a proportion of these new approvals won’t commence as they won’t get the necessary pre-sales to receive construction finance.  In light of this, interest rates are likely to remain low to try and encourage further housing demand. 

As a result, unless the RBA and APRA introduce macro prudential tools it seems unlikely home value appreciation will cease until such time as mortgage rates increase.

Cameron Kusher

Cameron Kusher

Cameron Kusher is senior research analyst at CoreLogic RP Data.

Cameron Kusher Construction

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