27 Dec 2015

A year of housing highs - and lows

8:11 am on 27 December 2015

Despite the odd ray of hope and the best efforts of the government, 2015 was another hard year for home buyers - with prices continuing to soar.

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Photo: 123rf.com

The average value of a New Zealand house crashed over the half-million mark in March this year, and sat at $555,729 in November, up 15 percent on the same time last year, according to the most recent round of QV statistics.

The Auckland region continues to drive the rises - the average cost of an Auckland home is now creeping toward $1 million, up 24.4 percent on last year to $931,807. In some of the city's southern suburbs, values are up by more than 30 percent.

The rises, while astronomical, are nothing new, with rapid rises seen for several years now. The average value of a New Zealand home has risen by 39 percent over the past four years and, in Auckland, house values are now a whopping 70.3 percent higher than they were in late 2011.

More Kiwis think it's a bad time to buy a house and banks are also concerned by the overheated market in Auckland.

First-home blues

First-home buyers continue to be the big losers, with prices rising far faster than many can save for a deposit. They haven't always received the most sympathy, with Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith telling them in April they needed to be realistic and accept they could not afford the "leafy suburbs of Remuera".

But many feel the chances of buying a home in Auckland are slipping out of reach, with a lot of first home-buyers forced to turn to parents to stand a chance.

The issue spreads out further than the property industry, with those in professions such as teaching finding it difficult to nail down that first home, and finding it hard to attract new staff to Auckland schools.

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Photo: 123rf.com

'The Auckland effect'

Auckland is feeling the brunt of the housing price squeeze but prices have risen around the country, and the pressure from the country's biggest city is having an effect on the neighbouring regions.

Of the 101 regions in New Zealand covered by the QV stats, just five - the Ruapehu, Tararua, Carterton, Buller and Grey districts - saw a drop in house values in the most recent figures.

The 'Auckland effect' - Aucklanders looking at properties in the districts - has been blamed for rising prices in Hamilton and Tauranga.

In June, realestate.co.nz reported it had seen a huge leap in the number of Aucklanders looking afield, particularly in Hawke's Bay, Manawatu-Whanganui, Waikato, Northland and Bay of Plenty.

But maybe Kiwis in the regions shouldn't panic, with one economist claiming recently that other cities' property markets would not overheat in the same way Auckland's had.

Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ) chief executive Colleen Milne told RNZ recently that first-home buyers looking outside Auckland was the main cause of price rises in nearby regions. There were also other factors, she said.

"I think it's the inability of first-home buyers, we're also hearing of people relocating and retiring in Kerikeri, taking money in their pocket. So people are going to make lifestyle choices, and we only see that as positive.

"The regions have actually not been performing that well since the GFC [global financial crisis], it's only a 4 percent increase in the median price across the regions."

New housing in Upper Hutt.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Property investor Olly Newland said the future of affordable housing in the country's biggest city looked grim.

"The main problem again is building affordable housing in the Auckland area and the problem with affordable housing is that developers can't afford to build it, and we've seen that recently.

"It's almost impossible to build affordable housing in Auckland and make a reasonable profit for the developer."

Foreign owners

The influx of foreign money into the local property market was also an ongoing saga in the past 12 months, with early predictions it would be a big year for Chinese investment.

After simmering for months, despite reassurances most overseas buyers planned to live in New Zealand, the issue boiled over in July, when the Labour Party used three months of data from an Auckland real estate agency to infer overseas Chinese were spending big on property.

The claim was based on the fact many buyers had Chinese surnames. Despite accusations of racism, Labour stuck by its story - and figures from a top Chinese property website at the time also showed New Zealand was among the most popular countries in online searches by people in China seeking properties overseas.

Seasonally adjusted property asking prices on realestate.co.nz in November.

Seasonally adjusted property asking prices on realestate.co.nz in November. Graphic: realestate.co.nz

But foreign investors were also credited with helping to keep Sydney's skyrocketing house prices down, according to Australian academic James Laurenceson.

Mr Newland, meanwhile, told RNZ it was a case of a minority group being blamed for all the ills in an economy.

"The biggest speculators - 80 percent or more of the market - are the ordinary mums and dads buying and selling their own houses. The foreign speculators are only a very small proportion, so I think that was over-exaggerated for political reasons."

Looking for solutions

Even those who are making bucketloads of money from the rising market admit it has grown far faster than is healthy, and efforts to curb the growth have been another constant factor in the past year.

In July, Finance Minister Bill English said the possibility of a crash was dangerous, but the government was also concerned prices were unfair on low-income families, and the effect of the Auckland market was holding New Zealand to "ransom".

The government has moved to ensure capital gains on residential properties bought and sold within two years are taxed, although property investors questioned the policy's effectiveness.

There are also hopes changes to the Resource Management Act could help ease the housing crisis.

Economics commentator Bernard Hickey told RNZ the Reserve Bank's measures on loan-to-value ratio mortgages from 1 November would reduce some of the risk of a crash.

"Its first round of LVR restrictions certainly did reduce some of that risk, because now there is a lower amount of loans that are in that high loan to value ratio category, above 80 percent.

"But with house price inflation of close to 20 percent in Auckland, even though it has slowed through October to December, the Reserve Bank will want to see confirmation through the Feb/March figures from REINZ that the market has slowed before it decides that that was enough.

"Because we had one round in 2013, this is the second round, and there are some who say if we don't see a slowdown in Auckland next year, or if it really starts to spread and heat up in Waikato, the Bay of Plenty or wellington, than the Reserve Bank may look to strengthen or widen those restrictions further out to try and control some of those risks."

State house in Titahi Bay, Wellington.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Hope for the future?

Every now and then during the past year, an expert has piped up to say prices might be easing, with Barfoot and Thompson, for example, making the optimistic claim in March that property could now be 'fully priced', but that is usually outweighed by data showing little slowdown.

Back in January, houses in Auckland were already "severely unaffordable", according to a global affordability survey, and prices continue to break new records again and again and again.

In the past month, house sales in Auckland fell sharply, but the average price shot up to its highest monthly increase in almost two years, and a million-dollar average price is is looming.

REINZ's Colleen Milne said there were signs the market was levelling.

"It would appear that sales are slowing, we've seen a 2 percent increase in the median price for November, but we are now seeing sales volumes at the lowest it's been since 2011, and we are also seeing properties with prices on them and auction clearance rates slowing, so that would indicate that sales are levelling."

Mr Hickey was not so sure.

"With the prospect next year of the potential of lower interest rates, it's certainly not clear that this is finished, particularly because not enough houses are being built in Auckland. In the last year, Auckland needed to build 14,500 houses just to cope with migration and natural population growth - it only built 8900."

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RNZ cartoonist Toby Morris' take on the Auckland housing crisis Photo: RNZ / Toby Morris

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