There's little evidence to suggest a downsizing rush

There's little evidence to suggest a downsizing rush
There's little evidence to suggest a downsizing rush

The idea that demographically we’re becoming a nation of downsizers is somewhat debatable.

Certainly, affordability constraints are having an effect on the property choice for young home-buying couples, but it doesn’t stop the flow of regular articles suggesting “families are increasingly flocking to high-rise apartments” which was all but stated as fact in a recent ‘ibisword’ newsletter – not to mention mainstream columns regularly delivered through the national press assuring readers we’re all becoming a nation of ‘happy strata dwellers.’

Whilst there’s no doubt we’ll see a future shift into apartment living as density in the capital cities continues to increase, the demographic most are concentrated on are our elderly downsizers. This is the great 'tsunami' many expect will tip not only the Australian property market over the edge with a flood of supply, but also that of the UK and USA – marring any recovery they’ve had to date.

We’re told our baby boomer retirees will all be downsizing en masse - so it’s worth investigating if this is correct, and if so, asking if the relative boom of inner city apartment stock currently being constructed in our inner suburban localities – the majority of which consist of four stories or more and are principally located in both Melbourne and Sydney – is going to suit their needs?

Proportionally we’re growing older as a nation – census data tells us the number of 20 to 44-year-olds has expanded on average by 4.6% per year in the five-year period leading up to the census – however by 2020 it’s expected to slow to 1.2% per annum (a trend clearly demonstrated by the United Nations World Population pyramid which extrapolates the data out to 2050.)


By the time we get to 2051 the elderly population over 65 will have doubled from the figures recorded in 2004, and over 85 year olds will have quadrupled. These are the ‘baby boomers’ who hold roughly half of Australia’s housing stock – a mix of owner-occupied dwellings and investments.

The first group of 65-year-old “baby boomers” started their retirement in 2011 and over the next 20 years, the others will follow suit.  It’s broadly assumed by property commentators and urban policy makers that most will be looking to downsize. With unit and apartment approvals running at an all time high it’s taken for granted that our elderly downsizers will increasingly migrate towards these inner city developments becoming part of the ‘happy strata dwellers’ I cite above.

It’s perhaps worthwhile looking at the definition of downsizing before investigating where the bulk of the next decade’s retirees will head. Whilst moving to a smaller dwelling is what most assume as the definition of downsizing, it can equally encapsulate the demographic that simply locate into cheaper accommodation - perhaps not negotiating on interior space, but moving to an area where they can purchase a similar sized home for less expense.

The only commonality between the two seems to be ‘land size’ – few are able to maintain lavish gardens and therefore opt for ‘low maintenance.’

Late last year the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute produced a paper entitled ‘Downsizing amongst older Australians’ – which attempted to address preliminary questions that hang over the accommodation needs of older Australians through an number of surveys, lengthy interviews, community meetings and ‘clues’ contained in ABS data.

Whilst they were able to recognise some broad trends contained in the census results, the research noted a severe lack of ABS information from which to assess the lifestyle needs of downsizers - therefore, despite the growing urgency on urban policy makers to provide adequate accommodation to meet ‘expected’ demand, we have scant details regarding preference of property type, price, and location an elderly retiree would require to successfully navigate the process. Hence why there are now calls for the census questionnaire to address the topic in detail.

Albeit, it was unsurprisingly noted from the ABS data available, that increasing numbers are leaning towards lower density dwellings as they move into their twilight years, and there is also evidence to suggest most retirees who moved in the five-year census interim stayed in the same SD area.  However, without deeper analysis there’s little to suggest apartment living is the preferable option.

The preliminary results from the AHURI survey were presented by Bruce Judd, Catherine Bridge, Hazel Easthope and Edgar Liu at the Australian Housing Researchers Conference in Fremantle earlier this year – the full power point is available here – however I’ll outline the results below.


From the 2815 ‘older people’ surveyed, only 43% had ‘downsized’ and although it’s generally assumed the predominant reason for downsizing would be monetary their survey revealed the biggest motivation for a move later in life is a ‘life event’ such as illness or the children leaving home. Financial gain as a motivator lagged behind ‘death of a partner,’ and this falls in line with previous literature which notes a ‘reluctance to release capital unless ‘non housing wealth’ was close to being exhausted.’  (Faulkner, 2007).

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With this in mind, it’s no surprise that their preliminary research paper also outlines a common trend for older residents to ‘stay put’ indicating many don’t want to move if they can avoid it.

Downsizing from a four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom unit, for example, would not just compromise living space, but also force the mover to ‘downsize’ their possessions – some items of which no doubt have sentimental attachment and a lifetime’s worth of memories attached.

Furthermore, in a three-bedroom home, children and visitors can come to stay – in a unit, it’s harder to entertain – not to mention negative financial and psychological stress that dissuades older families from upping sticks – such as stamp duty costs and selling fees and the general physical effort.  For these reasons (and others,) it’s well recognised that the majority of older people continue to live in suburban dwellings with three or more bedrooms.

In line with the issues of unexpected expense, one of the participants surveyed commented:

“There are other expenses in selling houses – (Stamp) Duty, Agent’s fees and so on – and then removal fees. ... I paid a monthly fee while the furniture was in storage. So, than was another cost..I wasn’t really prepared for.” (Male, 60-64, single, owner, regional, NSW)

From those who had downsized, there was certainly evidence of a proportional move into apartments – albeit, the larger proportion continue to reside in a separate house.

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From those who did downsize, the predominant difficulty seemed to be sourcing appropriate accommodation – with comments such as:

“We're not alone in saying, well where's this suitable smaller place? …That type of dwelling…that's being built within retirement villages where they're two or three bedrooms; they're really quite well set up and…well designed. But their problem is, that's where they are, in a retirement village often on edges of suburbs.” (Female, 60-64, couple, owner, urban, VIC)


“…We'd been looking for about 10 years… for…a block about this size, a dwelling rather like this that we could buy on our own. We couldn't find such a thing. Doesn't exist. We looked as far up the central coast. So…what this retirement village offers was the next best thing.”

The above data falls in line with my own experience working with elderly downsizers. Most are understandably fussy in their accommodation needs – affordability is a factor – modern apartment owner corporation fees are not modest by any means, and most I deal with, would prefer a small villa unit or town residence to an apartment.

Evidently, in our ‘squeeze as many on the block as possible’ culture, properties fitting the description above are not readily available.  Inner city suburbs lack the space, and outer suburban localities where more appropriate accommodation exists, often lack public transport and adequate infrastructure to meet demand.

Therefore, although it’s assumed there’ll be a downsizer tsunami into the apartment market – there is little evidence to suggest as such – and for those who do downsize, finding suitable stock can present significant difficulties. It’s probably for this reason that high-rise apartments continue to experience inflated vacancy rates coupled with a large proportion of student renters, whilst elderly ‘empty nesters’ choose to stay put.

The AHURI research outlined that between the five-year census interim period, only “one quarter of older Australians 65+ moved,” only 43% of the survey respondents who had moved since turning 50 had downsized, most moved to detached dwellings, with only 24% moving into flat’s or apartments.

Meanwhile, the home  buyer duel income property shoppers, who make up Australia’s largest buyer demographic would no doubt appreciate an extra supply of inner and middle suburban three and four-bedroom houses which are held by the downsizing population – just as first-home buyers would benefit from an increased supply of ‘starter’ one and two-bedroom low-rise established apartments, which unlike high-rise dwellings give a first-home buyer an increased ability to obtain financial approval with lower owners corporation fees, but which have been largely ‘soaked up’ by investors taking advantage of negative gearing tax benefits or purchasing as part of a diversified SMSF portfolio.

It’s clear the property needs of home buyers must be addressed by urban planners if we’re to free up the market stagnation which will increasingly affect city dwellers as the population expands.

Adequately funding infrastructure for our fringe suburbs to boost the construction sector as well as reducing hefty development overlays which are passed onto the buyer, addressing policies to constrain investor and foreign acquisition into the established sector which does little to increase supply, not to mention the recent trend of land banking vacant blocks which could be subdivided into homes ideally suited to both the downsizer, and young family buying demographic.

All of the above have played their part in disproportionally inflating inner and middle ring house prices, stagnating the market and reducing the options for first home buyers who are told to migrate some 30km from the CBD into a ‘nether nether land’ in order to purchase a house in which they can settle for a period of time and adequately raise a family.

Until such a time, we can expect more pain ahead in a property market that fails to cater for home buyers and largely benefits investors.

Catherine Cashmore is a market analyst with extensive experience in all aspects relating to property acquisition.



Catherine Cashmore

Catherine Cashmore

Catherine Cashmore is a market analyst with extensive experience in all aspects relating to property acquisition.


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