Too much cash, too few homes – property prices in a pandemic
A multi-millionaire Australian property mogul controversially suggested a few years ago that if young people wanted to buy a house, they should stop buying avocado toast and expensive coffee.
“When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for AU$19 (€12) and four coffees at AU$4 (€2.55) each,” Tim Gurner, who was then 35, told the 60 Minutes programme on the Nine Network.
His comments were met with a mixture of bemusement and outrage in Australia and overseas, particularly from those paying steep rents to property moguls while trying to scrape together a deposit to buy a house.
Although his argument was wildly simplistic – and perhaps a bit unfair to the coffee and brunch industry – Mr Gurner may have felt somewhat vindicated in 2020 in his general suggestion on cutting back on discretionary spending in order to stockpile savings towards an end goal.
The severely curtailed opportunity to spend money last year – from deferred holidays and missed nights out to unbought clothing for work or social events – has resulted in people of all ages saving record amounts of money during the pandemic, or certainly those who were lucky enough to hold onto their jobs and not suffer a loss of income.
A good portion of that money is being saved by prospective property buyers who are amassing a nice nest egg for a deposit to buy a first home or to move house, and they’re now competing in a market that’s said to be struggling to keep up with demand.
It’s not the only reason the property market defied predictions in the last year, but it could be one factor in explaining how we went from projections of a big drop in house prices last March to a market that’s now potentially facing significant upward price pressures once again.
At the onset of the pandemic last March, a range of devastating forecasts were issued on various economic indicators.
Owing mainly to a very swift response from Central Banks and governments globally, the worst excesses of those predictions look like they’ve been offset, but they weren’t wide of the mark.
Dire forecasts were also issued about the performance of property markets with commentators here appearing to agree that the market would suffer a 10 to 12% fall in prices in 2020.
And there were solid arguments to back their expectations, including the soaring rate of unemployment, the expected retrenchment of potential buyers in the face of an impending recession and the physical constraints of viewing properties during a pandemic.
So far, however, those forecasts have proven wrong.
Despite a marginal fall in prices during the summer into autumn, the market has held up remarkably well with prices on the rise once again.
According to the official data from the Central Statistics Office, annual prices started to fall in the month of July, but only marginally.
By November, property prices were on the increase again with a 0.2% rise in prices recorded in the year to the end of that month.
The CSO figures are primarily based on stamp duty receipts from the Revenue Commissioners and are therefore based on actual transactions, so even though they are the definitive measure of property price growth, the figures may contain something of a lag.
Property price reports from websites daft.ie and myhome.ie are based on prices that vendors are looking to sell their properties at.
While they may be slightly inflated by expressions of ‘hope and aspiration’ on the part of potential sellers, they are a leading indicator, and at the moment, they are pointing towards property prices rising at a much faster rate than the official data suggests.
In their annual reports for 2020, both outlets said they were capturing property price inflation in excess of 5% – which represents a wide disparity on what the official data is saying.
“The pressure has not yet turned up in transaction prices,” Conall Mac Coille, chief economist with Davy and author of the reports for myhome.ie explains.
“It is probably only a matter of time before the official measure of house price inflation accelerates.”
So, how did we go from a projection last March of prices falling by in excess of 10% to expectations now of a stable market, possibly putting in increases of up to 7%?
Simply put in the myhome report, there is ‘too much cash chasing too few homes.’
The ‘too few homes’ phenomenon is coming from all sides of the supply equation.
Even before the pandemic precipitated two shutdowns of the construction sector, we weren’t building enough houses to meet demand.
In 2019, according to official data, over 21,200 housing units were completed here.
That supply curve was expected to dip below 20,000 in 2020, with this year likely to follow suit because of separate shutdowns of building sites to control the spread of Covid.
The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) calculates that we need to be building around 28,000 units every year in the coming decades to meet demand, although the Central Bank puts that figure at closer to 35,000 units a year.
We’re a long way off meeting either of those targets.
When it comes to second hand or older properties, supply is also drying up.
Ronan Lyons, Economics Professor at Trinity College and author of the reports for daft.ie, said there had been a complete turnaround in the market since the onset of the pandemic here, largely because of supply issues.
Supply on the market has never exceeded 20,000 since last March, he pointed out, and the picture has only deteriorated.
On December 1st last, the number of properties on the market for sale on daft.ie had fallen as low as 15,390, a decrease of a third on the already low volume on the market a year before that.
The myhome data shows a similar trend.
“In every single one of the 54 markets covered in the latest report, prices rose year-on-year – the first time this has been the case since the middle of 2018,” Ronan Lyons explained.
“Indeed, just a year ago, sale prices were gently falling in two thirds of markets.
“The housing market is – as the name suggests – a market, and the laws of supply and demand are powerful descriptors of what is going on.”
So, who has the cash?
In short, those who have held onto their jobs and their income stream, who have been working mostly from home and have been saving their ‘avocado toast money.’
According to the Central Bank, Irish people put €13.4 billion into savings accounts in the 12 months to the end of November, driving household deposits up more than 12% to a record €124 billion.
Some of that money is being saved by prospective buyers who are hoping to put the money down on a deposit for a property.
And that’s reflected in the numbers approaching lenders seeking mortgages.
The October and November mortgage approval figures from the Banking and Payments Federation were the highest since 2011 with the total number of approvals now running 24% ahead of the same time the previous year.
The first-time buyer segment of the market has been putting in an even stronger performance.
“Mortgage approvals hit a new cycle high of €1.1 billion in October with the average approval rising to €250,000 for the first time, up 5% on the year,” Conall Mac Coille said.
“That points to inflationary pressure in the system.”
Another cash source that’s potentially putting pressure on the market is the reported surge in the number of expats seeking to buy in the Irish market in recent months, particularly at the premium end of the market.
The trend had already started prior to the pandemic and has accelerated since.
In the year to April last year, according to the CSO’s most recent figures, nearly 29,000 Irish nationals returned to live and work here – the highest number in 13 years.
The year ahead
Given that the supply issue is not going to be addressed any time soon, and as potential buyers continue to put cash aside, it’s likely that the situation that emerged in the latter part of 2020 will continue into 2021.
In a survey of 800 chartered estate agents around the country, the Society of Chartered Surveyors (SCSI) said agents in all regions expected to see a net increase in property values over the coming 12 months, with an average increase nationally of 4%.
There are variations across the country with Dublin prices expected to increase by on average 3%, while in Connacht-Ulster – which has some of the lowest prices in the country – values are expected to rise by 6%.
The disparity between Dublin and the market outside of the capital is widely believed to have stemmed from a combination of new working arrangements that have emerged from the pandemic and a lack of affordability in Dublin where the Central Bank mortgage rules are acting as a damper on price movements.
People are sacrificing proximity to workplaces for larger properties with more external space and the possibility of working from home more often.
“There is the potential that this shift in consumer preference may decrease over the coming 18 months as vaccines are rolled out,” the SCSI said in its report.
“However, agents reported that this trend appears to be continuing as people seek to move out of more urban locations. This may result in an increase in property values in rural locations,” it concluded.
And that trend is apparent in the official CSO figures. In the year to November, prices in the capital were down 0.9% while prices in the rest of the country outside of Dublin were up over 1%.
The region with the highest growth in prices in the year was the southeast, where prices were up 3%.
In an era of dwindling supply and a growing pool of interested buyers, the message to prospective buyers is, keep saving. It may be a while yet before you find your home.
The long sacrifice
Incidentally, pricing an avocado toast serving at €10 and a latte at €3.30, one would have to forego 5,150 rounds of toast or more than 15,500 lattes to save enough for a 20% down payment on a house costing €257,500.
If you have avocado toast and a latte three times a week, you’d be saving for close to 25 years!