The Sydney market trifecta - lack of supply, population growth and interest rates: Peter Chittenden

Peter ChittendenMarch 23, 20150 min read

Sydney’s residential market currently reflects a trifecta of settings driven by lack of supply, population growth and low interest rates (cheap money).

In combination these factors are impacting affordability, partly because the current market is very competitive.

Then we see interest rates at lifetime lows and a very mixed picture concerning employment that I think extends beyond the headline numbers, and so each has a big influence on the make up of current demand.

When looking at affordability, I think we also need to look at the competition that exists in the market because of population growth and the impact that this has on demand. 

First let’s just recall the fact that there has been a big gap in the supply of new dwellings in the Sydney market since 2001-2002 with supply at their lowest levels in 2007-2008 and again in 2008-2009. Looking at net migration numbers during this same period there are some figures that further help to explain why demand for housing was so strong.

The last time the number of net migrants to Australia was below 100,000 plus per annum was in 1999 at 96,500 new arrivals, but since then there has been strong growth in numbers at a time when our own domestic birth rate has also been on the increase.

In 2006-2007 net migration increased by 58%, peaking at almost 300,000 new arrivals in 2008-2009, and at that time supply was in free-fall. Currently for 2015 we are looking at approximately 215,000 new arrivals and we also need to remember that the birth-rate is also increasing. The combination of falling supply and strong population growth was always going to impact affordability because of rising prices.

  • Age Profile Adds Pressure

Affordability is, I suggest, also tied into the fact that currently Australia’s age profile adds to the pressure of demand because, I think its reasonable to suggest that by 35-40 most potential buyers would already like, if they could, to be established in the housing market.

Australia’s median age currently stands at 37.3 years of age and when you look at the average age profile of the top four countries of origin we see that those arrivals from the UK are aged 54, from New Zealand 40, from China 35 and from India 33, and in each case for varied reasons these are prime ages in the housing market.

A report published late last year by website, realestateview.com.au showed that 60% of first home buyers were now married and having children before they could afford their first home, and the same report also found that 57% of first home buyers are now in their 30s or 40s. This all makes for a very crowded peak of demand in these various age brackets.

  • Affordability & The Deposit Gap

Low interest rates look like they are going to be with us for sometime yet and this is good news for anyone with an existing loan, and there is no doubt that low rates are a key driver of demand. So much so that there are suggestions that investors might soon face some form of loan restriction, which would be a major shift in policy for a ‘free-market’ government.

However while low rates do continue to drive demand, affordability is a real hurdle more associated with buyers having to have their traditional 10% deposit, which would currently have to sit (in the Sydney market at least) around $80,000 – $100,000, plus an allowance for other costs, and while there is some limited stamp duty relief, a deposit at this level requires pretty good earnings and saving capacity, or a big helping hand from mum and dad.

Help from parents in helping to fund their kids into a home is now very common, and it’s a trend being experienced in many countries. However with parents dipping into their capital or savings this might impact retirement plans, and in the USA as one example this impact on retirement plans has raised the question, 'are your kids ruining your retirement’ – so it’s a more complex picture.

Weekend reports suggesting, yet again, that first time buyers should have access to their superannuation, does merit more thought, in particular if buyers are in the age brackets above. It seems overly simplistic to dismiss this suggestion, because really it simply moves money from one asset class, super, into another, housing and in doing so helps create many social benefits.

I think this also goes some way to clearly show how complex an issue affordability is across the housing market, and we have not even touched upon what might be done with the actual physical built product to help. Such as smaller homes and the idea of more use of pre-fabricated homes.

  • Employment & Interest Rates

No matter what the state of the market is, stable secure employment is a vital element. Currently the economy is in a state of transition and last year we saw some very big job losses in manufacturing, and now falling commodity prices are also impacting some areas of mining.

If we have a combination of rising interest rates and higher unemployment then house prices would respond, but that combination looks unlikely. Currently the rate in January was 6.40% however there is a degree of debate going on about the ABS figures and some private sector polls, such as that conducted by Roy Morgan Research suggest the rate is much higher.

However for many years between the mid-1970’s to the early years of the 2000’s the rate was more commonly near 7.5%, if we returned to that sort of figure then the housing market would change dynamics. To prevent this we will continue to see the need for structural reform, which is a hot topic for government. We will continue to keep a very keen eye on these figures.

Alongside unemployment rates, we know that we have home loan rates that are now for variable loans well below 5%, and while loans will always vary between lenders, among the big banks we are looking at around 4.73%, but then if we look at five-year fixed rates, again dependant upon loan term rates as low as 4.29/4.39%, which seems to indicate we are locked into low rates for a while yet.

I think that the market is clearly very active. I do not need to tell anyone that fact, development in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane continues at a solid pace and we have many new players coming into the medium-density market.

Then if we look at all of the dynamics at play for buyers, for the economy generally and the seemingly difficult path of government policy reform, I think that the housing market is more complex than it has ever been, but the fact is demand remains. We have to work with the shifting demographics and ensure we deliver the best product where people wish to live, be they owner-occupier or investor.

Peter Chittenden

Peter Chittenden is managing director for residential of Colliers International.
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Peter Chittenden
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