Big bang theoriesby Rebecca Macfie
Is the overheated property market a “ticking time bomb”?
The small but highly successful property portfolio of Auckland couple Patsy Chen and Mark Tung provides a lens to view the frothy Auckland property market. Tung, a 30-year-old former electrical engineer, bought his first city property in 2008, not long after the housing bubble of the 2000s had peaked. It was a large house with a separate two-bedroom flat in Mt Wellington, and it cost $550,000 including renovations. Five years on, it’s worth $790,000 – a gain of $240,000.
Then in 2009 the couple bought a small one-bedroom apartment in the central city for $104,000. In the current market it’s worth $164,000.
Shortly before they got married in 2009, they bought a modest Pakuranga house to live in, paying $430,000 and spending about $60,000 developing part of it into a separate flat. Based on recent sales in the area, it would now fetch $810,000 – a gain of $320,000 in less than three years.
Following the advice of property investment coach Ron Hoy Fong, they stuck with a strategy of buying modest places in Auckland’s inner suburbs, doing them up and renting them out at a good yield of about 8%. Since 2011 they’ve purchased five more properties – a five-bedroom house and a two-bedroom unit in Mt Wellington, two small units in Mt Eden within the two key grammar school zones, and a house in Epsom near Epsom Girls Grammar.
All up, they’ve invested about $2.8 million in Auckland houses over five years. If they sold them all tomorrow, they’d fetch about $3.86 million – a gain of well over a million dollars.
Not that they have plans to sell. Their intention is to build and hold their portfolio, in the firm belief that values in central Auckland will inevitably keep rising steadily. Even with the release of new land for greenfields subdivisions on the city fringes, Tung believes demand for housing close to central-city workplaces will remain strong.
The couple had no trouble getting bank finance to enable them to build their property portfolio, and with the benefit of rising values, they now hold only about 45% debt on the eight properties – a relatively prudent gearing level that would be unlikely to trouble Reserve Bank Governor Graeme Wheeler. “We have played it pretty safe,” says Chen, who, like her husband, migrated from Taiwan 17 years ago.
Indeed, the couple may well benefit from Wheeler’s imposition of “speed limits” on house lending. By barring the trading banks from lending any more than 10% of their mortgage book to buyers with a deposit of less than 20%, the central bank has made it tough for first-home buyers to accumulate a deposit large enough to purchase the archetypal three-bedroom bungalow in suburbs such as Mt Roskill and Sandringham. Tung and Chen – who both now work as real estate agents – think first-home buyers may be forced into the market for very small properties, such as the two-bedroom Mt Wellington unit they bought for $230,000 last year (now worth $324,000), putting upward pressure on prices for this category of home.
The Government and Reserve Bank want to cool the housing market, says Tung, “but my personal take is that it won’t happen [in Auckland] because there is solid demand and there is a need for houses, and increased prices are just a consequence of that need”.
First-home buyers might be hurt by the Reserve Bank’s new restriction on high-risk lending, he adds, but investors will be unaffected – they’ll just use their ability to borrow against their existing properties to keep buying.
And despite the Government’s moves under the new Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act to open up more land for housing developments, Tung says it doesn’t address the big shortage in the inner suburbs. Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan, with its vision of more-intensive housing development, has met with determined opposition from neighbourhoods that don’t want apartments and terraced houses in their established leafy streets.
But Tung says Auckland has little choice. “Auckland has had the luxury of lots of land and not so many people … but if we are going to have another million people in the city, we have to intensify and build up. In major cities around the world, that’s what happens.”
“TICKING TIME BOMB”
Meanwhile, the evidence of a dysfunctional and overpriced Auckland housing market is all around. A three-bedroom villa in Grey Lynn – so shabby and rundown that even the hardiest Dunedin scarfies might turn up their noses at it – sold recently for over $1.2 million, 160% of its $750,000 rating valuation. A similarly neglected-looking place in the same central city suburb went for $1.445 million (with the former owner creaming a $345,000 profit in just two years). From the Barfoot & Thompson auction room floor in late October, a dreary-looking 1950s three-bedroom brick-and-tile number in Epsom went for $1.09 million.
Just five years after the global economy was brought to its knees largely because too many people were able to borrow too much money to buy overpriced houses they couldn’t afford, it seems to be happening all over again. Since late 2008, after the end of the last housing bubble, Auckland city property prices have soared almost 42%, including 14% in the past year, according to QV data. New Zealand’s largest and most economically important metropolitan centre is now the ninth most unaffordable of the international cities monitored by the Demographia international survey of housing costs, ranking just behind London, Melbourne and San Francisco.
And it’s not just in the now-fashionable suburbs like Grey Lynn that the price of housing is wildly out of step with the earnings of residents. According to the Roost Home Loan Affordability Series, as at September this year a would-be first-home buyer – typecast as a person in his or her late twenties on a median income – wanting to buy one of the cheaper houses available in South Auckland would have to spend 92% of his or her earnings on mortgage repayments. That would leave the grand sum of $47.39 a week to pay for food, power, transport, education, healthcare and other essentials.
Economist Rodney Dickens thinks the true extent of New Zealand’s unaffordable housing has been disguised by current record low interest rates, and has warned of the “ticking time bomb” that awaits those who have loaded themselves up with debt and who will inevitably face interest rate hikes in future.
The city’s property market has become so out of whack that even those who stand to gain from soaring prices are worried. Peter Thompson, managing director of the city’s dominant real estate firm Barfoot & Thompson, supports the Reserve Bank’s decision to try to hose down the market by limiting low-deposit lending, saying it’s something he has been urging for five years. “If you have a 90-95% mortgage, it means that if prices come back, you put your whole property at risk … I would prefer to have a more stable market rather than one with real highs and lows.”
SECOND MOST OVERPRICED HOUSING
The problem of overpriced housing is not exclusive to Auckland, of course. The International Monetary Fund has warned that New Zealand house prices are 25% higher than their long-run average. And a recent report shows that, relative to incomes, houses in this country are the second most expensive in the OECD – after Greece. The Demographia survey – which works out the affordability of a city’s housing by relating median house prices to median incomes in the area – also ranks Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington as “severely unaffordable”. Indeed, there isn’t a single region in the country where median house prices are considered “affordable” – that is, where the median house price is no more than three times the median income.
In Christchurch – where the housing market is severely distorted because of the earthquakes – the average value has soared almost 29% in the past five years, including 11% in the last year. In Dunedin it’s up 10% and in Wellington 6% since 2008. Within Auckland city itself, the area that has seen the most rampant property inflation is South Auckland, where prices have increased 43% in five years, according to QV.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. By the time the housing bubble of the 2000s peaked, prices had doubled and household indebtedness had increased from 100% of disposable income to 150%. But while house prices in US, Ireland and Spain plummeted 30-40% after the bubble burst, in New Zealand the property markets of the main centres merely paused for breath, then resumed their climb. The banks were soon back in the saddle pushing low-equity loans again, and by this year 30% of all new mortgages were to people with deposits of less than 20%.
No wonder the Reserve Bank is worried. Once again, heavily indebted households are putting themselves and the wider economy at risk in the event that house prices tumble at some point. “Such a fall, potentially triggered by an external financial shock, could cause real damage to New Zealand’s financial system and broader economy,” warned deputy governor Grant Spencer in October.
THE POLITICAL APPROACH
Seldom has the cost of houses provoked such intense political heat and policy attention as it has over recent months. The Reserve Bank is aiming to cool annual house-price inflation to about 5% through its experiment in limiting low-equity loans, and is talking of a return to mortgage rates of 8% next year. Plus the Government has introduced legislation giving it extraordinary powers to override local planning rules to force councils to open up more land for housing subdivisions.
Housing Minister Nick Smith is waving a big stick at the construction industry, which stands accused of slack productivity and fat prices. He’s even threatening to force builders to disclose to their clients every time they get a free Christmas ham or a weekend away fishing courtesy of PlaceMakers or ITM. In addition, he promises to crimp councils’ ability to charge property developers whatever they like by way of development contributions – costs that vary hugely between different areas but which commonly add about $20,000 to the cost of a section.
Smith says his goal is for housing to become as affordable as it was historically in New Zealand. Long term, the median house price was about four times the median income, he says; currently, that ratio is 5.2 nationally, while in Auckland it is 6.7. To return to the historical average ratio of four times the median income, house prices need to stabilise and incomes need to grow, he says. And he professes to be unperturbed if the wealth of National’s traditional property-owning supporters is affected by such a strategy. “I am not worried if house prices are not going up at all.”
On the other side of the House, Labour has promised a 10-year programme to build 10,000 modest houses a year at “affordable” prices for first-home owners, funded by a $1.5 billion upfront contribution and thereafter financed by the sale of completed houses. It has also undertaken to develop a National Policy Statement, which would make the provision of safe and affordable housing a binding objective of central and local government, and it has pledged to introduce a capital gains tax and to bar non-resident foreigners from buying residential property.
But is any of this enough to make a real difference to a market that is set to be further stimulated by strengthening economic growth and surging immigration – including the likes of cash-rich middle-class Chinese migrants for whom Auckland house prices are cheap compared with Beijing and Shanghai?
The focus of policy action so far is Auckland, where the council and the Government have signed an accord under the recently enacted Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act. This legislation gives the Government the power to declare any area of the country a “special housing area” if house costs are judged to be “unaffordable”. Although Auckland is the only region listed in the schedule so far, Smith is also considering invoking the new powers in Wellington and the Bay of Plenty.
Eleven special housing areas in Auckland have been announced so far, which are expected to provide 6000 new sections. Developers will be obliged to make 10% of the new houses in these developments “affordable”.
Another tranche of special housing areas will be announced by Christmas, which Smith says will produce 10,000 additional sections – 6000 of them in greenfields housing subdivisions and 4000 in brownfields sites. Once land is listed as a special housing area under the legislation, resource consent is fast-tracked. Instead of the usual 18 months to three years, the council must process consents within six months. Neighbours will have much more limited grounds on which to object.
Smith claims 39,000 sections will be brought on stream in Auckland within the next three years under the new legislation.
FIRST TRANCHE “WON’T MAKE A DENT”
But South Auckland surveyor and property consultant Jon Maplesden believes the city’s property market has been so distorted for so long that the first tranche of special housing areas won’t make a dent in the problem.
Maplesden, a close observer of the city’s land supply and housing market for years, believes Auckland’s rate of population growth has been underestimated since the late 1990s. This, combined with an inflexible metropolitan urban limit (MUL) imposed in 1998, has held the city’s residential property market in a pincer for 15 years. In the 1996 census, Auckland was projected to have a population of two million by 2050. By the 2006 census, the two million milestone was brought forward by 20 years.
Maplesden says the Auckland Regional Council failed to respond to this radically different demographic outlook. Changes to the MUL were litigious, cumbersome and slow.
Auckland’s population has been growing by about 25,000 a year, which Maplesden says means 10,000 houses needed to be built annually to keep up with demand. “Instead, we’ve been building fewer than 4000-5000.”
Although the property bubble of the 2000s may have occurred regardless of the MUL – given the influence of an international glut of easy credit – the strangulation of land supply made it far worse, he argues. The average price of an empty section in Auckland has soared from $100,000 to $325,000.
A 2008 study of the Auckland property market by prominent economist (and former Reserve Bank chairman) Arthur Grimes highlighted the effect of scarcity on land prices, with land just inside the MUL worth about 10 times as much as land just outside.
The consequence of all this is not only unaffordable prices, but serious and widespread overcrowding in those communities least able to pay the inflated cost of housing. And although the corollary of a tight urban limit was supposed to have been greater intensification in the inner-city suburbs, that plan has repeatedly met with what Maplesden calls “host community resistance” – in other words, well-oiled political protests by residents who already own nice homes in established suburbs and won’t tolerate change.
Maplesden notes that most of the land Smith tagged last month as a special housing area for greenfields development was already earmarked for housing. He is more hopeful that the second tranche, due to be announced before the end of the year, will give a clearer indication of the potential impact of the legislation. “The next six months will be the testing ground, and if the people dealing with the resource consenting can be really staunch about local community lash-backs, we might start to see some progress. “
NEW HOUSES ON THE FRINGE “ARE NOT THE ANSWER”
For 26-year-old Auckland doctor Sudhvir Singh, building subdivisions at the far-flung edges of the city is no solution. Singh is housing issues spokesman for Generation Zero, a group representing young people concerned with the effect of climate change on their generation. The housing affordability crisis needs to be dealt with in a holistic way, he says.
New homes on the city fringe might appear to be cheaper, but the cost – in financial, social and health terms – of hours of daily commuting is forced onto those whose only option is to live there, and onto the environment as a result of increased emissions from longer car commutes.
Singh says Generation Zero wants “density done well” – more-intensive housing designed to match the population’s changing demographics, including a rapidly rising number of single-person households, an ageing population and couples starting their families later in life. Auckland Council data suggests that by the end of this decade, more households will be without children than with children, he notes.
The property market is currently failing to provide small, good-quality homes close to community amenities and within walking, cycling or easy public transport distance from work or community hubs – in part because “a vocal few who perhaps have only seen density done poorly have dominated the debate”.
He points to research by economists from the University of Zurich showing that a person who has to endure a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who can walk to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work was shown to have the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.
Singh says the cost of housing is also an issue of intergenerational equity. The baby boomers who bought homes for modest sums in the 60s and 70s are shielded from the housing stress caused by today’s housing prices, while those of his generation are struggling to find suitable homes that don’t burden them with a lifetime of debt.
As a recent report by right-wing think tank the New Zealand Initiative makes clear, the current generation of property owners has made windfall gains from the huge property inflation in the past decade, at the expense of their children’s and grandchildren’s generations.
The authors, historian Michael Bassett and researcher Luke Malpass, blame the effect of the metropolitan urban limit and the meddling of urban planners for the fact that a person who bought an inner-suburb house in 1975 for $70,000, lived in it for 35 years and did nothing but basic maintenance is probably now in possession of a property worth $1.5 million. “The MUL has mostly benefited older people who hath, and harmed younger people who hath not.”
Except, perhaps, for those who are savvy enough to see houses as vehicles to quick wealth rather than just somewhere to call home.
THE INVESTMENT PATH TO WEALTH
Two years ago, Susan* was in a financial crisis – she was recently separated, bringing up her young son alone and also supporting her non-English-speaking parents. They all lived together in the one-room Mt Eden unit she had a stake in following the failure of her marriage. Then she used the equity in the unit to borrow enough to buy a two-bedroom unit in the same suburb, which the family moved into, and rented out the smaller one. Soon afterwards, she borrowed again to buy another small place in Onehunga, then another in Mt Wellington. Recently she settled on a further one in St Lukes. She thinks that by Christmas she will be able to rejig her finances and buy another investment property.
The four members of her family still live together in the two-bedroom Mt Eden unit, despite her rapidly expanding portfolio. Hunkering down, saving hard and spending only on essential items come naturally to her, as it does to many Chinese New Zealanders.
“I think we are more disciplined. We know what we have to do and we prepare for that. We buy good food but we don’t spend money on unnecessary things. To achieve a goal, the Chinese will sacrifice at the beginning and we can start to enjoy ourselves when our financial situation has got better.”
Next year, perhaps, she will buy a house. She predicts prices will continue going up, “but not so crazy”. And although she has borrowed heavily to build her portfolio, she says with an overall level of indebtedness of 70% of the total value of her properties, she would be able to withstand a drop in prices.
“I feel much more secure now,” she says – thanks to cheap credit, Auckland’s runaway housing market and single-minded determination.
*Susan’s name has been changed at her request.
Where the grass is greener
Some have found the answer to Auckland’s high property prices.
Secondary school teachers Karen Guise (42) and husband Ken Kilkenny (43) quit Auckland in January this year, convinced they could get more bang for their housing buck elsewhere.
The couple each owned a modest two-bedroom unit – one in Te Atatu and the other in Avondale – and were living in a rental in Ellerslie. With their toddler Finn in tow and baby Tari on the way, they wanted to buy a three-bedroom place with a bit of lawn for the children to play.
“But we knew that if we wanted to live in Ellerslie or within range of the central city, we just couldn’t afford the kind of place we wanted. We were looking at having to pay $800,000 to $1 million. We’re not on corporate wages and we just weren’t going to be able to afford that.”
As teachers, they are paid the same salaries regardless of which region they are working in, so it was a logical step to pack up and head for Tauranga, where they were able to buy a 70-year-old four-bedroom house in Welcome Bay. Ken got a job at Papamoa College and Karen, who is on maternity leave, is planning to find a job at one of the city’s schools next year.
“We love it here, and a big part of that is the fact that we’ve been able to find this home, where we’ve got a garden and can grow a few vegetables, we’ve got a view of the sea and access to the water. I want to go back to work, but it’s nice to know that I don’t have to go back full-time to pay the mortgage.”
Christa and Brad Inglis-Topp also chose to opt out of the overpriced Auckland property market – two months ago they shifted to Invercargill. The two property developers say Invercargill land prices are a fraction of Auckland’s. What’s more, the Invercargill City Council doesn’t charge developer contributions for parks and reserves, which in Auckland can amount to $20,000-80,000 per section.
They have already bought a 1300sq m block of land – they don’t want to disclose the price but say an equivalent section in Auckland would cost at least 20 times as much. They have subdivided the Invercargill property into four sections on which they will develop two-bedroom kitset homes targeted at retirees. They’ve also bought a 150sq m heritage home on a 1100sq m section. It cost $80,000 and they expect to spend about $90,000 doing it up.
Invercargill presents “the perfect opportunity”, Christa says – not only for business, but also for lifestyle. “You can go out for a drink with friends and the price of a taxi home is a sixth of what it is in Auckland.”
There’s not enough money and not enough houses.
Auckland’s population is projected to reach 2.2-2.5 million over the next 30 years. The city will need an additional 400,000 dwellings to meet demand, an average of 13,000 a year. It is already 20,000-30,000 dwellings short and building consents are running at less than half the volume required.
On average, Aucklanders spend a higher proportion of their income on housing than New Zealanders in any other region. According to the Auckland Plan, 60% of homeowners earning $50,000-70,000 and 45% of renters are in “unaffordable housing” – that is, their mortgage or rental costs make up more than 30% of gross household income.
The plan cites research on the Auckland housing market showing that from 1996 to 2009, the number of people in paid employment unable to buy a home in the lowest valuation quartile more than doubled from 37,000 to 77,000. That number is now likely to be even larger, as it was based on the assumption that buyers could obtain a mortgage with a 10% deposit.
Where to now for house prices?
Four observers give their views.
Housing Minister Nick Smith:
“It’s too early to call exactly what the impact of the Reserve Bank’s loan-to-value ratio limits will be, but the preliminary signs are encouraging … All the reports from auctions and the speed of sales suggest it is having a cooling effect in Auckland.”
Analysis of the Wellington and Bay of Plenty markets – where Smith is considering implementing housing accords similar to the Auckland one – suggest it is dampening prices in those centres also. He says he wants to see prices stabilise long term, but does not want to see prices fall to the extent that homeowners owe more on their properties than they are worth.
BNZ chief economist Tony Alexander:
The Reserve Bank’s new rules on low-equity loans have had a big impact, says Alexander, with home loan approvals in the week ending November 15 down by almost 12% from a year earlier. First-home buyers have “hopped out of the market”, leaving the field open to investors and foreign buyers, Alexander told interest.co.nz.
Over the next six months he expects the market to be “messy”, with a gradual return of first-home buyers, strong interest from investors and “Chinese money”. But the fundamentals – booming migration and a shortage of properties – point to continued rising prices.
Squirrel Mortgages principal John Bolton:
“From what I see, the market is softening quickly. Listings are up, auction clearance rates are down,” Bolton wrote in a recent blog. The market is “getting riskier” and he and his business partner sold properties recently. In Auckland, first-home buyers have been pushed out of the market by the Reserve Bank’s limits on low-equity loans. Young property investors have also been blocked from trying to enter the market. Bolton thinks the Reserve Bank’s rules will “bite harder than most commentators have predicted”.
“South Auckland will be the first market in Auckland to report lower prices.” The confidence of Chinese buyers has waned lately, he says. News of auction clearance rates dropping below 50% “is a huge signal. I suspect we will get our first average price fall reported in January.”
NZIER economist Shamubeel Eaqub:
Prices outside Auckland and Christchurch are “relatively normal” and have fallen in some regions since 2007, Eaqub points out. That adjustment has happened without causing damage to the banks and the financial system, he notes.
As to what will happen to the property market in the near future, “That’s a million-dollar question – literally, in Auckland. No one can confidently predict what house prices will do in one or two years’ time, but what we are seeing in the data now is people who are buying houses in Auckland today are betting on them rising between 6% and 10% per year forever. That has never happened in the history of New Zealand, or internationally.
“So we think people are taking a huge amount of risk on an asset that is very highly leveraged. If house prices fall, which they could, it would have a really big impact on those people’s finances.”
Eaqub thinks Auckland prices have been driven up less by a shortage of properties and more by investor interest, and that there is a risk the city could end up with an oversupply of houses if the Government’s aim of bringing 39,000 properties to the market in the next three years is achieved.
Other countries have ways of stabilising the housing market.
Retired Christchurch property developer Hugh Pavletich has been firing email grenades at politicians, journalists, adversaries and allies for years, railing against New Zealand’s high housing costs and demanding radical reform. He doesn’t care whom he offends in the course of pursuing his argument that zoning limits aimed at stopping urban sprawl have caused an artificial scarcity of land, which in turn has hiked up prices to an intolerable degree.
Pavletich – who bought his first home in 1978 for $24,000 when he was earning $8000 a year – is behind the annual Demographia survey, which looks at housing costs in a range of international cities and ranks them according to affordability. His baseline assumption is that the median price of a house should be no more than three times the median income in the city (a ratio that he says was common in New Zealand until about 1990).
Using this so-called median multiple measure, Auckland is classed as “severely unaffordable”, with a median house price 6.7 times the median income, as is Christchurch at 6.6 times. Wellington, Bay of Plenty and Dunedin also rate as severely unaffordable, with 5.9, 5.4 and 5.1, respectively.
Exhibit one in Pavletich’s case for eliminating urban limits is a photo of a large four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Houston, Texas, worth NZ$240,000. The same house here, he says, would go for $700,000 – if not more.
The key difference, he argues, is that most of Houston has no land zoning – aside from certain no-go areas set aside for environmental reasons – and therefore no restriction on the availability of new sections for house construction. “On the [city] fringes they can just go for their lives.”
Infrastructure to support new housing areas is financed through statutory bodies called municipal utility districts, which borrow on the US municipal bond market and charge households a fee for the water and sewerage services they receive.
“We need to have open zoning on the fringes of our cities, where you can develop residential, industrial or commercial [subdivisions] as the market dictates, with no barriers, aside from clearly identified no-go areas that are based on good environmental or geotechnical reasons,” argues Pavletich. “That means local government isn’t in there, controlling land supply.”
GETTING AROUND THE NIMBY FACTOR
Yet if planning strictures were to blame for New Zealand’s high prices then surely rule-bound Germany would have outrageous house prices, too? But economist Oliver Hartwich, who was brought up in Germany and now lives in New Zealand as head of the New Zealand Initiative, says the property market in his home country – and in neighbouring Switzerland – has remained largely stable for years.
Having studied the issue closely when he was employed at London’s Policy Exchange, Hartwich concluded that the key to the steadiness of the housing markets in the two countries is the manner in which the benefits of housing growth are sheeted back to the wider populations of the suburbs, towns and cities concerned.
In New Zealand the “not-in-my-backyard” opposition from established neighbourhoods to new developments is often founded on a sense that they have nothing to gain from population growth. But in Germany, a proportion of income tax goes directly to local government to fund infrastructure and amenities – thus benefiting the communities where property development occurs. Developers still have to seek permission from councils and comply with planning rules, but the funding system means developers and councils share similar incentives.
In Switzerland, cantons – local councils – levy income taxes from their population, which also enables them to finance local infrastructure and amenities, This, Hartwich argues, aligns the interests of residents, developers and councils.
Rates of home ownership are relatively low in both Germany and Switzerland, which Hartwich says is because there is no stigma against renting, and stable house prices mean people don’t feel pressured into buying. Hartwich’s parents didn’t buy their first home until they were in their fifties, having lived in the same rental accommodation for 20 years.
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