To Buy, Or Not To Buy, That IS Indeed The Question

Republished from Digital Finance Analytics

We get a steady flow of questions from those who read our research, or follow our posts, but one question, more than any other we get asked is –  Should I Buy Property Now? Many cite the real estate industry claims that now is a great time to buy – but is it really? Today we are going to explore this question, but with a caveat. This is NOT financial advice, and is simply my opinion, based our own research and surveys. Your mileage may vary. The market is different across states and locations.

Watch the video or read the transcript.

But it is an important question given that home prices appear to have reached something of a peak, and may be sliding in some areas; housing is Australia is unaffordable, as the recent Demographia report showed; banks are tightening their lending standards under regulatory pressure; net rental streams are looking pretty stressed; many households are under severe financial pressure, and mortgage interest rates are likely to rise.

In fact, we have a generation of home buyers and prospective home buyers who have only ever seen home values rise, and if you are in the property owning system, is has become a significant source of wealth creation, amplified if you are a property investor, and assisted by ultra-low interest rates, tax breaks and other incentives.  But will the good times continue to roll? Not necessarily.

So to decide if now is a good time to buy, consider these questions.

First, why do you want to buy a property? Up until recently, our surveys have shown the number one reason to buy was capital appreciation and wealth building, with finding somewhere to live a poor second. But now, if you are wanting to buy to grow wealth, we say be careful, as the market dynamics are changing, and its likely prices will slide. Also there may be changes to negative gearing under a Labor government, and property investment mortgage rates are likely to rise, while rental streams are not, so more investment properties, on a cash flow basis will be under water. At the moment there are much better returns from the buoyant stock market, though of course that may change. Remember that prices crashed by 40% in Ireland, 35% in the USA and 25% in UK after the GFC. Prices can go down as well as up. Property is not a one-way bet!

But, if you are seeking to buy, for somewhere to live, and capital growth is less important to you, then it may still be a good time to transact. Prices are already down, and many sellers are accepting deeper discounts off the asking price to make a deal. In addition, if you are a first time buyer, there are state incentives and really low mortgage rates available. But remember you are still buying into a highly unaffordable market, and the capital value of your property may fall. This could turn into a paper loss, and indeed should you need to sell, a real financial hit. The way a mortgage works is you put in a deposit, and the bank lends the rest. But in a falling market, it is your deposit which is eroded. After the GFC many households in the northern hemisphere ended up in negative equity, meaning the value of their mortgage was larger than the market value of their property. As a result, people were stuck living in their properties unable to move, hoping the market would rise again. In fact, it did over the next 10 years, so now many are no longer in negative equity. But it can be a long and winding road.

Next, if you do decide to buy, do the work. First look around at property available, and recent sales, to get a sense of the market. Also look in different areas, and even different states. Often locations a little further from public transport are cheaper – but then is the trade-off worth it? Also compare new builds with existing property. Often newly constructed homes carry a premium, which just like a new car, on first use falls away. On the other hand, there are some desperate builders out there, with big projects, and few buyers, especially in the high-rise belts of Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, so they may do a deal. We are seeing a steady stream of people who sign up for off the plan builds, but then when it comes to getting a mortgage, they cannot find one, so cannot complete. So read the small print on these contracts. Ask yourself, what happens if you cannot complete the transaction.

It is also harder to add any value to a new property, whereas an older one may offer more potential for investment and upgrade, and this can be a way of helping to preserve value. There is an old adage – buy the worst property on the best street. This is still true, with caveats – you should check the condition of the property so you know what you are up for.

Also, do the work when it comes to a mortgage. Our research shows you can often get better mortgage rates from some of the smaller customer owned lender, as opposed to the big four by going direct to them. So shop around. Whilst using a broker may help, again we find that some of the best rates are found by borrowers who do the work themselves. Many brokers will do the right thing, and really help, but there is a risk that the commission and ownership structure of broker firms may mean they do not have access to the best rates, and they may not always be working in your best interests, so be careful.

There is more work to do also, on affordability. A lender will make an offer of a mortgage, based on your financial details as contained in the application, and supporting evidence. Remember lenders want to make a loan – it is the only game in town in terms of their profitability – but there is evidence that some lenders will offer a bigger loan, by using more aggressive living expenses, and income assumptions. That said, the industry is getting more conservative, with lower allowable loan to value ratios, and some income categories now reduced.

Just because the lender says you can have a loan, does not mean you should get the loan. The lender is looking at risk of loss from their perspective, not yours. If you have a large deposit, then the bank can assume that capital is available on default to recover their mortgage. Remember in Australia, you cannot just walk away and return the keys, the liability stays with you. So, ask the lender, not just about repayments at current interest rates, but also what happens if they rise. A good rule of thumb is catering for a 3% rise in rates. Get the lender to tell you what the revised repayments would be at this higher rate, and ask yourself if you could still make the repayments. This is important, as incomes are not growing in real terms and mortgage rates may well rise. If you cannot make the repayments at 3% high, get a smaller loan, and buy a smaller place.

You may need to build your own cash flow to test what is affordable – again do not rely on the bank for this – remember they are concerned about risk of loss to their shareholders, not to you.  ASIC’s MoneySmart Budget Planner is a good starting point. Also, remember to include the transaction and stamp duty costs in your calculations.

Another area is the deposit you will need. These days you are likely to need a bigger deposit. 20% would be a good target, as this then avoids having to pay for expensive Lenders Mortgage Insurance. Above that, you will need this facility – which to be clear, protects the bank, not you!

More prospective borrowers are turning to the Bank of Mum and Dad, for help, but there are also risks attached to this arrangement – see our earlier Video Blog on the Bank of Mum and Dad. Some buyers are clubbing together to purchase, but there are risks attached to these arrangements too.

Finally, if you do buy, work on the assumption you will need to hold the property for some time – say a minimum of 3-5 years. The old trick of flicking after a year or so will not work if, as we expect prices fall. Remember too that there are additional costs to owning a property from council rates, running costs – such as electricity – and maintenance costs. Owning property is an expensive business.   Make sure these costs are included in your cash flows.

So what’s the bottom line?  If you are wanting to buy to put shelter over your family’s head, and can afford the mortgage, and are willing to accept a risk of loss of capital, then do the work, and it might be the right thing to do.  A capital gain is by no means certain in the current climate!

But, if you are looking at property as a wealth building tool, I think you might do better to hold off, as prices are likely to slide, and the costs of an investment mortgage are on the rise. At very least look in areas around Hobart and Adelaide where value is better at the moment.

In fact, though, the only reason I can see to transact in this case is to lock in a negative gearing arrangement now, before the next Federal election. But then, that seems to me to be a long bow, and our modelling suggests that the removal of negative gearing will have only a minor impact on the market. There are a bunch of other more compelling reasons to think the market will fall.

So in summary, whatever type of borrower you are, do the work and be very careful. Prices may rise, but they can also certainly fall, and a mortgage could just be a noose around your neck.

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Martin North is the principal of Digital Finance Analytics