When discussing housing affordability older Australian tend to point to much higher interest rates in the past as being a challenge while for younger Australians, higher property values are seen as the biggest barrier to home ownership. The truth of the matter is it is much more nuanced than this, but on balance I would say it is much harder to break into the housing market now than it has been in the past but it is not due to much higher property values alone. Let’s take a look why.
Although dwelling values have reduced over recent years, housing is in most instances (much) more expensive than it has been in the past. While this is an important consideration it is not the be all and end all.
One of the commonly repeated memes is that interest rates were high in the early 1990s thus making buying a home difficult. What probably made buying a home more difficult at time was the fact that the unemployment rate reached as high as 11.2% compared to the 5.2% today however, once again it is a bit more nuanced than that. When unemployment peaked, the male workforce participation rate was 73.8% which is actually higher than it currently is (70.9%) while the female participation rate was 51.9% compared to the historic high of 61.1% it is currently. Furthermore, although the unemployment rate peaked at 11.2% in December 1992, the underemployment rate at that time was 7.8% compared to the 8.9% it is currently. Delving a little deeper to look at underemployment for those likely to be saving for a mortgage, the underemployment rate in December 1992 for 15-24 year olds and 25-34 year olds was 13.3% and 6.7% respectively in 1992 compared to 20.7% and 7.2% respectively today. Although the unemployment rate was much higher in 1992 than it is today, there were fewer females in the workforce. Individuals that had a job were more likely to be getting as many hours as they wanted compared to today’s workers, particularly younger workers, the ones most likely to be trying to save a home deposit. The fact that female participation has lifted so much over recent years also points to the fact that saving for and paying off a mortgage increasingly requires more than one income.
Another factor pointing to entering the housing market being more or just as difficult in the past as it is today is the higher interest rates in the early 1990s. If you had a mortgage at that time that was certainly a somewhat difficult time however, if you were saving for a deposit at that time you were also receiving substantially higher rates of interest on your savings. When standard variable mortgage rates for owner-occupiers hit their peak at 17% between June 1989 and March 1990, 12 month term deposit rates for savers hit as high as 16% but ranged from 14.2% to 16.0%. Today, standard variable mortgage rates are recorded at 4.94% and 12 month term deposit rates are 1.65%. Both are at historic lows however, the gap between the term deposit and variable mortgage rate is only slightly lower than its historic high and much larger than it was in the past. While a current potential buyer may be looking to save for the mortgage, they aren’t getting the assistance from higher interest rates that they may have in the past.
Inflation is also a key consideration in this discussion. Inflation is at record low levels currently and was much higher in the past. While many people tend to not consider it, higher inflation is typically accompanied by higher interest rates but equally if the cost of everything is increasing more rapidly, it results in the erosion of the real value of a mortgage. Given this, higher inflation should lead to mortgagees being able to pay off their mortgage quicker. While this doesn’t necessarily impact on those people saving for a deposit it does mean that once they take out a mortgage, paying it off is relatively easier with higher inflation than it is with lower inflation.
Saving a deposit for a mortgage has always been difficult. When I first took out a mortgage I was lucky that my parents were able to assist. Equally, when my parents first took out a mortgage in the 1970s they had parental assistance and my children will most likely need assistance from my wife and me. Unfortunately, not everyone is in a position to receive the same assistance and when you look holistically at the current factors of high property values, insecure employment, low inflation and subsequently low interest rates, I think it is more difficult than it has ever been to save for a mortgage. Supporting this opinion is the fact that the share of households that are renting continues to rise while the share of owner-occupier households both with or without a mortgage continues to fall.
Improving access to potential first home buyers is extremely difficult, with grants tending to push values higher but it is clear something needs to be done. Unfortunately, falling dwelling values have broader repercussions for the economy because so much household wealth is tied to housing. Ideally, after recent value declines we see the housing market show modest gains over the coming years which would continue to gradually improve affordability over time. In saying this, it still doesn’t really address the challenge that saving a deposit continues to be the biggest hurdle and low interest rates look to be in place for a number of years to come.