The market is cooling, but for first home buyers the dream of owning a home of their own at a price they can afford is still a long way off.
The latest housing finance figures from the Bureau of Statistics released on Tuesday show that investors continue to flee the housing market, but owner-occupiers are also taking out fewer mortgages than they were a year ago. Even with interest rates at, or near, record lows, right now the decision to buy or invest in property is being put off.
Real estate, perhaps more than any other industry, is subject to peaks and troughs. And right now it is in a trough.
In April, for a record 15th month straight, the value of mortgages taken out by investors fell in trend terms. The 2% fall in April was the biggest monthly fall in that period, suggesting that there is still some ways to go before the bottom is reached.
Combined with a 0.2% fall in the value of owner-occupier mortgages (excluding re-financing) it adds up to a 1% fall in total housing finance – the ninth consecutive fall, the longest run since the global financial crisis.
Total housing finance in April was 5% below what it was a year ago – led by a 13% fall in investor financing, while the 2.1% growth in owner occupier finance was the weakest since 2016:
In short, people are staying out of the housing market – and mostly this is coming from investors.
The sharp drop in investor finance is most obvious when you look at the total value of mortgages taken out each month.
In 2015, the level of investment finance actually surprised that of owner occupiers. And even though it dipped once macroprudential rules were put in place to limit banks’ exposure to such speculative lending, by the end of 2016, investor and owner-occupier lending was almost equal. Since then the level of investor finance has fallen by 16% while the value of owner occupier lending has grown by 8%:
Essentially, investing in housing isn’t seen as that great of an investment at the moment.
But while investment property has been the big story, it would be wrong to think that owner-occupiers are now rushing into the market.
While the value of mortgages taken out by owner-occupiers grew over the past year, the number of such mortgages has actually fallen:
The number of people taking out mortgages to buy a home has now been falling for eight months in trend terms. And the pace of the drop has been quite fast – down 8% in that time.
The fall is pretty uniform across the nation as well. In all states the annual growth in the number of owner-occupier mortgages being taken out is lower than it was in September last year:
One area however where things appear to be improving is for first-home buyers. In April, 17.6% of owner-occupiers taking out a mortgage were first-home buyers – down slightly on the month, but still well above where it was a year ago:
But here, however, a bit of care needs to be taken before cracking open the champagne and declaring the problems of housing affordability for young buyers is over.
Overwhelmingly, the increase in first-home buyers comes from Victoria and New South Wales, where last year the respective state governments brought in policies to encourage first-home buyers such as cutting stamp duty and, in Victoria, doubling the first-home buyers grant for homes in regional areas:
But while the figures appear to show a strong surge, in reality the surge was a very quick one in the month the new policies came into effect, and since then it has tapered off quite dramatically:
It would seem that, even with the incentive, getting into the housing market for first home buyers remains tough. After all, despite the slowing of the housing market, the average mortgage size has continued to grow:
Even in Sydney, where the market has come off the biggest peak, the average mortgage size in April was 7% higher than it was a year ago. Even using the less volatile rolling 12-month average, the average mortgage is still 3.8% higher than it was a year ago:
So while housing affordability is perhaps not decreasing as quickly as it was two years ago, it remains a tough market to get into. The housing data suggests that for many investors, the difficulty is not worth the risk given the prospect of poor returns owing to low rental price growth and the already high house prices.
And for those looking to a buy a home for themselves, it appears many are holding off, perhaps in the expectation that this slowing of the market will lead to a fall in house prices, or perhaps because while prices might be cooling now, after nearly five years of running hot while wages growth has been falling, the damage has already been done.
- Greg Jericho is a Guardian Australia columnist
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