Which is a better investment – an apartment or a house?

Which is a better investment – an apartment or a house?
Which is a better investment – an apartment or a house?

I’ve been asked to write an answer to the question, “Which is better – an apartment or house?”

It’s one of the most common queries buyers ask - especially in light of what seems to be an inexhaustible high-density apartment boom, taking place in Sydney and Melbourne in particular.

In New South Wales alone, the latest data from the ABS shows apartment approvals near a record high, numbering 25,517 units in the year to February 2014 - a 69% share of total figures. Country wide, approvals of both units and apartments now sits at its highest level in history.

In Sydney in particular, the news is deemed ‘positive’ – assumed to put downward pressure on both rents and prices. But contrary to popular belief, additional supply of property does not always equate to lower prices.

For decades, the city’s supply has been hampered by stringent planning requirements, allowing big developers with a greater financial capacity to hold the upper hand. Consequently, a larger proportion of developers currently active in CBDs gain their funding offshore (which, according to some analysts, is expected to reach near 100% in Melbourne by 2016). 

Which is a better investment – an apartment or a house? 

In NSW, the shortage of stock required to cater to the needs of a market, which currently consists of over 50% investors in central areas, has resulted in a spike in prices, which has diverged considerably from other states.

Sydney is booming, and the real estate agents are busy making hay. However, it’s hard to term these dwellings as affordable – or for that matter, desirable.  They are not built for home buyers - they’re temporary pit-stops for renters who need to stay centrally located.

Groups such as Charter Keck Cramer estimate up to 90% of the apartments released in Melbourne’s central regions since 2009 have been sold to investors – albeit, it doesn’t make them good investments.

Complexities of construction

In order to maximise yield, they typically have a floor size of around 60-70 square metres (for a two bedroom dwelling) – compromising natural light and storage space along the way.

Furthermore, the challenge of keeping apartment prices low is complicated by zoning regulations, rendering some neighbourhoods immune from dense development, whilst others have been given the green light.  

This further limits the tight concentration of land where construction can occur and from a micro perspective, escalates already inflated land values for the sites deemed suitable.

The developers are not altogether to blame. Getting planning and building approval for an apartment block is a costly venture, requiring 100% debt cover and often resulting in a period of years from concept to ‘lock up’ (a six year period not being unusual).

The complexities include levies for funding of communal facilities (such as underground parking, street lighting and so forth), which understandably contributes significantly to the cost of the product and often a lengthy period to resolve protests from existing residents, who understandably fear the social and economic impact causing a downward valuation on their own wealth fund for retirement.

To obtain the necessary funding, larger percentages are marketed to overseas buyers using vastly inflated commissions.

High owner corporation fees to fund the required security features, lighting in corridors, lifts, lifestyle amenities (such as a gym or roof top garden for example) equate to at least a few thousand a year.

Some developments offer rental guarantees, promising a return not possible once it’s expired. And should the developer encounter financial difficulties during this period, there is no government legalisation backing up any promise of payment.

Good investments?

To give some idea - the floor plan below was taken from a building just north of Melbourne’s CBD, which was purchased off the plan in 2012 for $580,000, and sold some 18 months later for $476,000.

 Which is a better investment – an apartment or a house?

A sample floor plan for a two bedroom off the plan apartment.

Another in the block was promised a rental return some $50 a week higher than it achieved on the open market, examples such as this leave most local investors hoping tax concessions will help compensate their losses.  

Having worked in a rental apartment previously, I can anecdotally confirm turnover in this type of development is high - with renters generally preferring lowrise to highrise - and despite common belief that renters are poverty stricken ‘wanna be’ home owners, the demographic that live in apartments (typically young, childless, working couples) have aspirations that often exceed what’s currently on offer.  Therefore, whether we’re increasing supply for the ‘needs’ of the rental sector in central localities on a micro level is questionable.  

Melbourne’s Southbank has vacancy rates often topping 8%, which also falls in line with data obtained from Prosper Australia’s recent speculative vacancy report, which analyses water usage to assess residential vacancies across the metropolitan region over a 12 month period – the methodology of which is explained in detail here.

The research shows 7.9% of accommodation in the suburb uses no water at all, and over 22% less than 50 litres per day (a statistic which may be influenced to a limited extent, by some being serviced apartments).  Needless to say, periods of vacancy which put downward pressure on yields, is not what most investors have in mind when acquiring a property – yet an increasing number are doing so in their SMSFs and are acutely reliant on cash-flow.

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Buying close to the city a better option?

All of the above, works on the assumption that most people like to live close to the city and whilst this may apply to residents in their early years, who delight in the hub and bub of an inner city lifestyle - including student renters who need to locate close to nearby university campuses - there isn’t much evidence that the rest of us are prepared to give up space to live in the type of accommodation constructed.

Indeed, the idea that demographically we’re becoming a nation of downsizers is somewhat mythological, but it doesn’t stop the flow of regular articles suggesting we’re all becoming a nation of happy strata dwellers. Once again, it’s often another excuse by property commentators (including buyer advocates specialising in apartment sales –often not openly obvious when you cruise their websites) to promote this option over others. 

Whilst we’re likely to see a trend toward apartment living due to lack of feasible alternatives, it’s been shown the elderly overwhelmingly downsize to medium density accommodation, thereby avoiding highrise developments altogether. Younger generations in their 20s and 30s have a greater propensity towards high density living, with the proportion increasing; however, figures still only peak around 14% at the age of 27 and the trend across all age groups is marginal, with only one in 20 choosing this form of accommodation nationwide (as of the 2011 census).

Obviously, most local home buyers prefer houses to apartments – and for the highrise price tag of a two bedroom flat, there’s far more bang for buck in established accommodation that doesn’t come with the additional risk of a view being built-out, queues to exit the car park, and 150 immediate neighbours traversing through various stages of their housing ‘career’.

At 44%, the typical Aussie home still has three bedrooms and the stats show only one or two residents occupy the majority, with a big increase in the number of four-bedroom homes, which now make up almost a third of our total housing stock. 

The single person household is no longer the fastest rising demographic. In the five-year period to 2011, lone person households had dropped from 24.4% to 24.3%, while group households (shared accommodation) jumped from 3.9% to 4.1%.  Whether the trend continues will become apparent in time.

In the rental demographic, this is likely due to reasons of affordability – renting a one bedroom inner-suburban apartment can often be more costly than an older three or four bedroom detached dwelling a few suburbs out. Therefore, it makes sense to share and this trend is mirrored in international markets – such as the UK and Canada, which produce similar data in their own census breakdowns.

Most of the first home buyers who cross my path also follow the above pattern.  Rarely do they opt for a one bedroom apartment – unless they’re restricted to a particular suburb. Most opt to move outwards and purchase something larger and if given the option, would rather rent until they’re able to afford a suitable property for their five- to seven-year time needs. 

Affordability constraints driving buyers away from city areas

Extra supply for the buy to let market should not be diminished, and it’s not my intention to do so.  However, there’s a broader need to establish quality accommodation for a larger proportion of home buyers who will accept townhouse living if locating inner city, but reject high density developments. And contrary to popular belief, it is possible to accommodate an equal number of residents in medium density dwellings without building to the skies.

Movements such as Create Streets in the UK are at the forefront of pushing low rise initiatives, and Robert Dalziel – the London-based architect for Rational House, who visited nine cities around the world, including Mexico City, Shanghai and Berlin, has comprehensively examined how high-density can be made agreeable for a broad demographic of home buyers.  More information can be found in his book –commissioned and published the Royal Institute of British Architects: entitled A House in the City — Home Truths in Urban Architecture.

Therefore, the major part of Victoria’s growth (mirrored in other states) has been evidenced in fringe localities such as Wyndham, Melton and Whittlesea. And one thing we’re not short of in Melbourne (and for that matter most other states,) is land.  Albeit, as I’ve written previously - regulatory constraints in outer suburban localities have increased land prices disproportionally, making the entry point for such developments effectively double what it should be. 

To demonstrate, following correspondence with Wendell Cox, author of the Annual Demongraphica Housing Affordability Report in reaction to a recent piece I wrote outlining differences in international markets, Cox constructed a nice little chart which cuts through the usual measures used to convince readers that ‘housing has never been more affordable’, with an overwhelming focus on mortgage serviceability rates alone.

Instead, it demonstrates the speculative nature shaping the property cycle, which affects not only established house prices, but building activity as lot sizes reduce, whilst land prices per square metre, outpace income growth considerably.  (Something, which only a broad based land tax coupled with changes to supply policy will solve.)

Which is a better investment – an apartment or a house? 

Source: Demographia

Cox points out that ‘urban containment’ – contrary to the political rhetoric – does not result in cheaper prices.  However, to date, every reform put in place to release more land and build an abundance of accommodation, has resulted in higher prices per square metre both here and similarly in the UK and USA.

What to do?

Back to the question at hand – quite evidently, purchasing a new off the plan flat in either Sydney or Melbourne is not going to grant a windfall in economic rent (capital gains).  

You’ll often read commentators dictating that apartments perform better in their median data than house prices – and whilst it may be the case over the short term, it has not been proven over the long-term. In fact, over a long time frame, median detached house prices have outperformed unit prices and there are sound fundamental reasons why this may continue.

Broadly speaking, as a “set and forget”, providing you’re careful with the pre-purchase due diligence (strata reports - ensuring its not a stratum or company share title, which can cause issues in terms of financing and attracting future demand - fees, size, price, zoning, position, facilities, and so forth) apartments generally attract a higher yield, are low maintenance, and when issues with the building do occur, they are typically handled by the owners’ corporation and/or property manager.

Purchasing land offers more options – (subject to feasibility) - allowing extension, subdivision, back garden granny flats and so forth - our largest demographic of buyer are families and therefore land is still the golden nugget for most accommodation seekers.

No matter what kind of buyer you are – at some point you’re going to want to sell the home and move on, therefore acquiring an option that maximises consistent demand is critical in any equation.

Albeit, with the apartment choice being either an aged block in need of maintenance or new and subject to over supply. Or in terms of a house – budget restrictions only allowing a compact block in a fringe development in which landowners have control over how they ‘drip feed’ supply onto the market, I quite often advise purchasers to consider an alternative option. 

And, for that piece of advice, you’ll have to contact me direct.

You can contact Catherine via email or Twitter.

Catherine Cashmore

Catherine Cashmore

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

Housing Affordability Catherine Cashmore

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