Property prices cannot keep rising at the same rate

By January 27, 2021 Property Investing
property prices

A common question people ask is, “can property prices continue to rise at the same rate which they have over the past 3 to 4 decades?” The short answer is no, they cannot. Mathematically, this is unlikely to occur as incomes are not rising at the same pace.

I came across the interesting graphic/visualisation (below) which sets out how property values have changed in real terms (excluding inflation) since 1970. The surprise for me was how much Canberra prices have risen (thanks, public servants and politicians!) and how attractive Brisbane prices appear.

What has driven property prices over the past 3 to 4 decades?

In order to form a view with respect to future property price growth, it is important to understand what has driven property values over the past few decades. There have been some events which are unlikely to be repeated. Below are some of the key factors, in no particular order.

Population growth

Australia’s population has been growing at a faster rate than other developed countries, mainly due to higher levels of overseas immigration. Population growth increases demand for housing, especially in capital cities as skilled migrants are attracted to job opportunities.

Increase in access to borrowings

Australians are borrowing 2 to 3 times more than they were in the 1970s. Banking deregulation in the ’80s and ‘90s opened up more competition between lenders and reduced home loan margins i.e. mortgages became cheaper. The tables were turned, and suddenly potential borrowers were being approached (marketed to) by the banks, not the other way around.

Increase in household income

In a family unit, it is a lot more common for both spouses to work compared to fifty years ago. In fact, often it is necessary for both spouses to work in order to afford to live in their desired location. The transition from one to two household incomes has extended property purchasing power.  

People are buying their first home later in life

In my experience, most first home buyers are in their late twenties to early thirties. This is partly because homes are relatively unaffordable for younger people in their early twenties.

But also, younger people tend to prefer to focus on their career thereby maximising their income earning capacity before they buy a home and/or have children. This puts them in a relatively stronger financial position compared to first home buyers 50 years ago.

Access to more information

The internet has opened up a wealth of information. People are able to educate themselves about how to build wealth with property, including the advantages of borrowing to invest. This blog is an example of this. I write over 50,000 words a year, sharing almost 20 years of experience, which people can read for free. Such information was non-existent before the 2000s.

More, bigger, better

Drive around a newly developed residential suburb and you will notice that the homes are massive. More bedrooms, bigger living areas and smaller back yards. New home buyers are building larger homes with improved amenities and finishes compared to a few decades ago. These improvements contribute towards the increase in the value of property. The same is true when people renovate existing properties in established locations.

All of the above factors have contributed significantly to property price growth over the past 3 to 4 decades.

Which of these will reoccur over the next 20 plus years?

Some of the above factors will persist, some won’t, and some might impede future growth. Here are the factors that I think will influence property price growth over the next few decades.

Population growth will be equal or higher

Of course, the negative health and economic impacts caused by Covid have been devastating, and I don’t seek to diminish that. However, from a global perspective, Australia’s handling of the virus will be looked upon very favourably. Whilst New Zealand has also done well, Australia offers more job opportunities.

As such, I think Australia’s handling of the virus will be the biggest contributor to an increase in demand for immigration in the future. Assuming the government’s immigration policy remains unchanged, our population growth rate is likely to be the same or higher over the coming decades. This will be a positive contributor to property demand.

Borrowing capacity will not increase

Banks are willing to lend borrowers approximately two to three times more compared to the 1980s. However, borrowing capacity has reduced over recent years. In summary, lending capacity rose significantly between early 1990s and 2007/8. However, since the GFC, borrowing capacity has contracted. It is my view that borrowing capacity won’t change materially from hereon in.

Therefore, the event of large increases in borrowing capacity (i.e. loose lending standards) won’t be repeated again.

Incomes will also constrain borrowing capacity

It is unlikely that incomes will rise at a rate greater than inflation, at least not in the foreseeable future anyway. That means, in real terms, incomes will either be flat or falling.

In addition, in my experience, families with young children are already working as much as they can, so there’s limited ability to increase their income further. As such, the income uplift created by both spouses seeking work (compared to just one), won’t be repeated. [As a side note, the cost of childcare is a real problem. People often balk at the cost of private school fees, but childcare can sometimes cost more.]

Overall, at a macro level, supply of new lending and incomes will not have the same positive impact on property growth as they did previously.

Congestion will get worse

Most economists and demographers would agree that Australia has under-invested in infrastructure including roads and public transport. As such, our capital cities are becoming more congested. This trend is unlikely to ease anytime soon. As such, living closer to the CBD becomes even more attractive.

Yes, working from home will be a permanent trend. But I believe that most people will opt for a hybrid model consisting of a few days in the office and a few at home. More importantly, there are other attractions to living in a city including proximity to family and friends, schools and recreational/entertainment opportunities.

These factors will likely include demand for, and therefore prices of, property price growth located in inner-ring, blue-chip locations.

Economic inequality will get worse

Sadly, the gap between rich and poor gets wider each year. Unfortunately, Covid will exacerbate this as the lockdowns have clearly impacted lower income earners (whereas data shows the top 40% of income earners have not been impacted at all).  

If this trend continues (and it almost certainly will) there will be a significant cohort of high-income earners that will be willing and able to pay more for property in sort after locations. As such, the value gap between blue-chip locations and outer suburbs will widen.

We may not be able to rely upon a rising tide

As the saying goes, in a rising tide, all ships rise. Since the early 1980s, the property market has benefited from a rising tide (for the reasons discussed above). You could have bought a property in the early 80’s in any capital city in Australia and it would have made you a lot of money.

But the tide may not continue to rise. Population growth is probably the only factor that will universally contribute to positive property value appreciation. However, apart from that, the factors that have helped middle-to-lower income earners increase their purchasing power over the past few decades, probably won’t repeat themselves. 

Not all property will rise in value perpetually

This means the type and location of the property you invest in will matter a lot more over the next few decades than it did over the previous few decades.

It is best to adopt the investment assumption that the ‘rising tide’ will not continue. Therefore, asset selection is critical to get right.

Even if this assumption turns out to be incorrect, you’ll achieve better than average returns.