It's time for a major change to stamp duty

Peter ChittendenMay 14, 20120 min read

When the GST came along on July 1, 2000 there was the "promise" that lots of other taxes, duties and charges, in particular state taxes would be abolished or at least reduced. But in the intervening years changes have been minimal and only at the margins, for example mortgage duties have been abolished in most states.

A policy change to remove or reduce the payment of stamp duty applied to real estate post-GST was and still is an illusive target. Today there are few indicators that any big changes are coming our way in the near future.

This is not to suggest that change will never come, in fact just the opposite. Various state governments are happy to use stamp duty concessions to stimulate various sectors of the market. They have become very comfortable with the idea of making concessions that are in reality no different from a promotion that a developer might offer.

Common incentives on offer can frequently target first time buyers, or older buyers or aim to stimulate construction activity. Sometimes these target groups are seen as disadvantaged and stamp duty savings can then be promoted in combination with other grants, like the FHB grant to directly stimulate activity.

However, this on-again, off-again approach can create market distortions and when the central idea is for example to stimulate the construction of new homes, it’s hard to argue why this application of stamp duty should not be removed permanently.

And I would have to suggest that such a change would need to be a national initiative. New construction is a major driver of economic activity and it has a huge flow on affect that runs deeply into many sectors of the economy and so the benefits appear obvious.

A national approach is desirable, to avoid different states simply chasing policy so their local market is not disadvantaged. Lets change the rules in this or that state so that an adjacent state does not gain all the advantages, appears to be a common theme. A national policy would also present a uniform market for international buyers looking at Australia, and avoid a major influx into any particular state. Again with the possibility of creating a local distortion.

The under supply of dwellings in almost all major markets is further reason to consider this permanent change to duty and with a predicted national undersupply of 170,000 forecast for 2013 (Source: BIS Shrapnel) removing stamp duty would hopefully kickstart the resources necessary to overcome this shortage.

Older buyers have a role to play

But this is not a simple area of policy, the predicated undersupply of new homes also needs to be compared with the already established housing stock, and there are some very interesting trends here that are for instance being impacted by older homeowners.

A study in 2010 by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found that 84% of homes occupied by people over 55 were living in a home with one or more spare bedrooms. And while some of this spare capacity would be used for family or lifestyle reasons, downsizing was possibly being restrained by the impact of stamp duty.

In NSW there is an existing concession, where the Senior’s Principal Place of Residence duty exemption applies to people between 55 and 65 years of age buying a new house before 1 July 2012 when the concession is set to end.

Stamp duty concessions for older people downsizing would see more homes in established areas released onto the market and this would also have the impact of better utilising of existing infrastructure, as many of these homes would be in established areas.

Here I can see good reason for such a policy as funding new infrastructure is almost always sighted as one of the main reasons that high council levies apply in new residential development areas. But could I also suggest that this type of ‘recycling’ of existing homes and local infrastructure could be a solid argument to collect less stamp duty.

Such stamp duty incentives do produce structural change in the market as we have seen recently in Sydney. The $600,000 cap on the current NSW Home Builders Bonus has for example seen a big lift in the number of one-bedroom apartments coming onto the market, and they have proved popular with investors and first time buyers.

Post June 30 – what will happen in NSW?

When it comes to the undersupply of housing, I have already highlighted that NSW has the biggest shortfall of more than 101,000 dwelling forecast for 2013, and construction activity has lagged for many years. And this is even with some large land release area’s opening in the cities south-west and north-west.

Activity simply refuses to budge and this is despite what should be a big level of pent up demand, and yet regardless of the shortfall demand has failed to greatly boost construction. The pressure from pent up demand is somehow not materialising.

And while there will never be one simple answer, the impact of stamp duty must be counted among the reasons, and this would suggest that the current concessions for First Time Buyers should be extended across the entire market. The FHB market does not exist in isolation and market-wide activity would benefit.

A more general concession at a realistic price level and possibly over a sliding scale could help generate more extensive market activity.

Some may still argue that this could further dampen affordability if the exemptions for stamp duty was not only limited to first time buyers, but we need to keep in mind that there are other FHB grants and also these same buyers would have access to a wider choice of locations helping to create a deeper market.

The case for change

Stamp duty on real estate transactions is a big source of revenue for every state government. This is essential revenue, but does the burden fall fairly and is the ‘tax’ more complex than it needs to be. Clearly every state and territory government is happy enough to use stamp duty as a form of concession with varied and ongoing schemes, and so there are many precedents of sorts for change.

Australians generally pay stamp duty on all property transfers (accepting that there are varied and ongoing concessions) but on our principal residence we pay no capital gains and in 2012-13 according the Federal Treasury that concession will cost the federal budget $35.5 billion, that’s almost 9.5% of all federal government expenses.

Any move to change this policy would be almost impossible, but it is perhaps the absence of a CGT that permits other high property taxes, including stamp duty to be justified.

Stamp duty concessions are almost always tipped in favour of first-time buyers, and associated with new homes, but questions remain as to what impact this has on building activity. This is also as noted a more complex area because the concessions vary between states and they are almost always transitory.

Stamp duty is an unpredictable tax for the states and despite the cash flowing from the GST the revenue would need to be captured from other structural changes in the economy. But clearly stamp duty remains a barrier to everyone in the housing market, young, old and even those looking for greater flexibility with employment are possibly constrained by its impact, being reluctant to move.

There are, however, some more immediate changes possible that could include greater indexation of rates of duty, including the permanent removal of duty for first-time buyers and some appreciation of the fact that the duty applies to the final price of a new home where there would already be many other layers of taxation. When the duty is paid is also an area where policy could be modified, helping to reduce the up-front costs of buying a residential property.

With the NSW state budget set to be announced in two months' time, will change result with the possible application of duty concessions to the wider market?

However, let's hope that we do not take a lead from Queensland, where from August 1 last year stamp duty for owner-occupiers on property purchases increased. But in contrast at the same time to stimulate the building industry, discounts on stamp duty for anyone buying or building a new home were introduced, leaving existing dwellings to bear the brunt of the increases. That’s a mixed message by any conclusion.

Peter Chittenden is managing director for residential of Colliers International



Peter Chittenden

Peter Chittenden is managing director for residential of Colliers International.
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