Overcrowded properties: Why it happens and how to stop it

With Australia’s capital cities being home to some of the world’s most expensive rental properties, it is no surprise that overcrowding is a serious problem that many investors face. This is a serious problem in many Australian capital cities, as housing costs increase and supply of affordable property fails to meet demand levels.

Overcrowding of apartments, houses, and other property types occurs for a plethora of reasons. Some of these are profit-driven, others more situational and/or socio-economic. Whatever the reasons a tenant has for overcrowding a property they are renting; landlords suffer the ramifications of this.

Just about everyone has heard a story or has been directly involved – perhaps as a landlord – in a property overcrowding situation. I’ve heard so many horror stories here in Sydney from friends, colleagues, and readers about overcrowded apartments. One friend, a fellow investor; discovered that after six months of a 12-month lease; his three-bedroom apartment was being permanently occupied by nine adults.

Many Australians who have ever lived in inner-city areas have heard stories like ‘that apartment on the other side of my building back in my uni days that only had two bedrooms, but had eight people sleeping on mattresses in it!’.

Some investors may have a mindset of ‘So long as the rent is being paid, I don’t care what happens in the property’. However, savvy investors know why overcrowding must be stamped out, otherwise they can be personally liable. Here’s why and how overcrowding can hurt investors:

Fire safety

-          Say you have say a two-bedroom apartment and you rent it out to just one or two people, whose names are on the lease. If there is a fire where injuries, or worse, fatalities occur, and the investigation reveals that several adults were occupying in the property at the time, insurances are likely not to be paid out.

-          This results in oftentimes crippling losses for the investor, as they are forced to either repair and renovate the apartment at great expense; or sell the apartment at great loss in order to consolidate their losses.

Property damage

-          A less severe but just as important consequence of overcrowding is property damage. This is worse for landlords of houses, however unit and townhouse investors can still suffer. I’ve heard of horror stories for house investors where tenants have ripped down walls, or added their own walls to create more bedrooms to fit more people.

-          With so many people living on top of each other in cramped spaces, carpets, walls, and appliances will get warn out much faster than regular properties.

I dug a bit deeper to find out the major reasons why properties in Australia, and in particular, in inner-CBD located properties, are prone to overcrowding:

Poor housing affordability

-          This is a huge issue not just for Australian-born citizens, but those who are new to the country, as well as international students.

-          Share houses and apartments are becoming increasingly popular in middle to outer-ring suburbs to help curb affordability issues. This is happening not just with the ‘young student’ population that most would imagine would live in this way, but with young professionals, and even mature friends living together to keep costs down.

-          However in the CBD areas, the rarity of three to four bedroom properties that can be affordably shared, means that smaller apartments can suffer overcrowding as a way to keep costs down for renters.

Proximity to centralised transport nodes

-          Those who are new to the country are also less likely to drive a car, and combined with the desire to live in the heart of a CBD or close by, to allow them to be close to work, whilst still affording the expensive rent, sharing a room in an overcrowded apartment or boarding house may be the most viable option.

-          This is also related to time efficiency. Those new to the country or international students are sometimes working two or more jobs, and this means they don’t have the time to waste on commuting from cheaper, outer-ring suburbs. Instead, it is more ‘efficient’ for them to live within minutes’ walk to the best-paying job prospects; and these are usually located close to CBD areas.

Illegal profiteering

-          Unlike the abovementioned reasons, this one is more sinister, and highly illegal. Some profiteers ‘prey’ on those who either cannot get a lease of their own, or are new to the country and there are language or other barriers that prevent them sourcing a property legitimately. This unfortunately includes illegal arrivals to the country.

-          These people will rent out large apartments and houses in prime locations from real estate agents, and then then illegally sub-let the property for profit, overcrowding the rooms as much as possible.

-          For example; a ‘tenant’ may pay $800 per week to rent a four-bedroom, well-located apartment, but may fill each room with two or more beds, and charge $150 per bed, per week, turning a profit weekly from the revenue

So what can you do to prevent overcrowding, and how can you tell from the outside if a property has too many occupants?

Get the best managing agent money can buy

-          A highly competent agent will never allow overcrowding to occur. This happens because they are conducting regular routine inspections of your property.

-          However, the best agents are almost like detectives for that. An overcrowded property; with enough notice period prior to a routine inspection, can be made to ‘appear’ it is not overcrowded, however savvy managing agents will be on the lookout for any evidence that the property is being occupied than more adults than those listed on the lease.

Be aware of strata by-laws in your state or territory

-          How many people is too many, in a property? You need to investigate what the strata by-laws are for units and apartments in strata-managed properties; as well as what the law states for houses that are not part of any strata management.

-          There are mild variances from state to state. For instance, in NSW, where overcrowding is a severe problem due to weak affordability for renters, strata-managed building now stipulate no more than two adults per-bedroom, per-apartment. This means in a one bedroom apartment, only two adults are allowed.

Tenant screening in the beginning

-          Ensure that the applicant(s) you choose to allow to rent your property have been properly screened by your managing agent.

-          If you have any doubts, it is appropriate to ask to see references and/or a tenant ledger history from your agent. Red flags to look out for include a history where the tenant(s) have not stayed in one property longer than a year (over a long period of time), or of course any black marks against their name in their rental history (such as reports of damage, tribunal hearings, and so on)

Local council and student council awareness programs

-          To help prevent international students being taken advantage of, by illegal profiteers, most CBD campuses of universities around Australia give information about overcrowding as part of student orientation and on boarding processes. This helps to prevent students being taken advantage of.

-          Local councils in densely populated local government areas also investigate reports of overcrowding. If you suspect neighbouring properties near where you live, or where friends live, are overcrowding the rooms, it is best to report them.

-          This in turn helps to combat the issue head-on. The knock on effect is then a more spread out human population throughout capital cities, and this is good for the health of all residents in big cities, because city resources and services are more evenly and fairly distributed for use to all occupants.

Have your agent ask the neighbours

-          As an investor, it is hard to keep an eye on your place when you are not actually living there yourself. This one comes back to having a good agent on board. If there is suspicion that a property is overcrowded, ask your agent to check things such as:

  • Neighbour observations. If neighbours notice lots of people regularly coming and going from the property, this could be an indicator.

  • Rubbish share. If the property is a unit and is producing ridiculously high volumes of rubbish contribution to the shared bin areas, this is another indicator. With houses, asking neighbours on rubbish volumes is also a possibility.

As an investor it is vital to protect the financial prosperity of your property, and overcrowding is one of the nasties to be conscious of. Knowing how to detect if it is happening in your property; what to do if it occurs, and the potential legal consequences of not doing anything about it is an important piece of the investor success puzzle.


Cameron McEvoy is a NSW-based property investor and maintains a blog, Property Correspondent.




Cameron McEvoy

Cameron McEvoy

Cameron McEvoy is a NSW-based property investor and maintains a blog, Property Correspondent.

Community Discussion

Be the first one to comment on this article
What would you like to say about this project?