It’s time to index stamp duty

It’s time to index stamp duty
It’s time to index stamp duty

A strong resurgence in the residential property market has significantly lifted transfer duties; including residential stamp duty in 2013-14 and signs are the trend will continue.

However for what has been described by some commentators, as a ‘windfall’ may in reality be a clear sign that long overdue stamp duty reforms should be addressed now while the market is so positive.

Higher prices and continued strong demand are putting a lid on affordability, along with low interest rates and while very competitive interest rates are welcome, it’s time to look at a longer term solution to the government’s heavy reliance on stamp duty revenue. The state government’s first time buyer concessions are also only available on new homes and so this tends to fuel demand in some, mainly outer, areas but the concessions also limit the choices of first time buyers.

However the much wider consideration is that government revenue may be far too reliant on stamp duty revenue from a robust property market. We should question if this is placing a greater or uneven burden on home buyers for a revenue benefit for the government that may be short lived. At the same time government is naturally welcoming the revenue, but this is a volatile source of cash.

And while state-based tax reforms looks a long way off, I think that it is reasonable to suggest that while the market is so strong that this is the ideal time to start the process of reform. Because in the longer term, lower stamp duties with more widespread affordability might well help to fuel and sustain a more robust market. This process could start with indexation.

However before looking at the case in favour of indexation, one of the most telling figures in this debate is the comparison between GST revenue and transfer duty that NSW receives. GST revenue in 2014-15 is estimated at $6.094 billion rising to $6.9 billion in 2017-18. By comparison, the total transfer duty revenue in 2014-15 is estimated at $6.095 billion (of which $4.7 billion flows from residential property stamp duty) but this is anticipated to rise to $7.256 billion in 2017-18. On top of which we should not forget that revenue from land tax will add $2.4 billion – $2.8 billion in the same time frame, plus the parking space levy is set to reach $115 million by 2017-18. Adding these figures we see that by 2017-18 property related revenue for the state will be some $10.24 billion. To me this appears to suggest a possible imbalance.

Higher Prices Should not be Driving Revenue

We currently have historically low interest rates, pent up demand, undersupply, improved consumer confidence and of course the obvious big increase in house prices. It is the rapid increase in prices YTD to 16.3% against an anticipated 7% increase that really does support the argument. It is time for the NSW government to look at reducing or at least moderating the amount of stamp duty from residential buyers via some form of indexation.

The concern being expressed is that stamp duty does play a role in the housing affordability debate. The figures speak for themselves, when you consider that the average stamp duty paid by a property buyer is now $23,805 and that only nine years ago it was $14,485, then the figures look horrible. In 2005/06 total stamp duty paid was $2.3 billion today its $4.7 billion.

The result comes about because higher property prices are pushing average home buyers into more expensive stamp duty brackets. Economists refer to this phenomenon as bracket creep. Governments tend to enjoy bracket creep because it delivers growing tax receipts without nasty policy changes or political debates.

The current stamp duty brackets have not been changed for a very long time (except for the “premium property” bracket that was introduced in 2004). When these brackets were put in place, the median house price in NSW was less than $300,000. The median house price in Sydney is now $783,000 as bracket creep catches more and more buyers. Already we know that in some 170 Sydney suburbs, that’s one in five, median prices are now $1 million plus, and this is a further signal that some adjustments are warranted.

Governments do need revenue, but stamp duty reform has been promised for many years, and the current policy is a negative for many buyers. It’s also a source of income that in many ways is frequently volatile. One solution is to start and adjust the growing bracket creep problem, and this could be done in stages.

If some changes are made now when receipts are high then the NSW government can start indexing the benchmark to be more in-line with today’s values, as current rates are distorted and need adjustment.

After all, in Sydney almost no homes are well below or even near $300,000, which was the median price when current rates were set.

Peter Chittenden

Peter Chittenden

Peter Chittenden is managing director for residential of Colliers International.

Stamp Duty Peter Chittenden

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