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Andrew Laxon: Gap growing wider for first-home buyers

A year ago the Herald launched a series called Home Truths: Tackling NZ’s housing affordability crisis. We followed house hunters as they tried to get into Auckland’s soaring property market, talked to experts about what first-home buyers should do and analysed the causes of the problem, from city planning regulations to favourable tax breaks for property investors. Twelve months on, has anything changed for the better? Home Truths series editor Andrew Laxon, business editor-at-large Liam Dann and political editor Audrey Young examine where we are now and what we can expect.

It would be nice to report that a year after the Herald's Home Truths series, things are finally looking up for first-home buyers.

Unfortunately the facts paint a very different picture - as every frustrated house hunter knows.

The yawning gulf between house prices and the average person's savings is not shrinking. It may be growing more slowly than last year but it is still out of control and housing is more unaffordable than ever.

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Auckland house prices have almost doubled since 2011; incomes are up by less than a quarter. No one can save fast enough to match that increase, unless they already own property or have outside help. Even last year, the median price rose $70,000 while a typical first-home buying couple's income rose $2000, according to the interest.co.nz Home Loan Affordability series.

Of course, sensible first-timers don't try to buy houses at the median price ($890,000 in the latest March figures), let alone the average (up $114,000 last year to more than $1 million), so those figures are not the real target. But despite Social Housing Minister Amy Adams' assurances this week - she told Parliament that record numbers of new apartments are being built and she could find 1800 listings in Auckland for properties worth less than $600,000 - most of the cheapest options are out.

Home Owners and Buyers Association president John Gray explicitly warns new buyers against apartments, based on his long experience of leaks, body corporate dramas and earthquake-strengthening costs. Many so-called bargains lie on the outskirts, which doesn't work for most because of the time and cost of commuting.

So the typical first-home buyer will probably have to spend about $670,000, the top price in the bottom quarter of the market in February, which has become the new benchmark for entry-level housing. At this point most single people can officially give up - unless you are a very high earner, house-buying in Auckland requires two incomes.

However, this house will also be out of reach for a typical Auckland couple aged 25-29 with a combined take-home pay of $1602 a week, according to interest.co.nz. If they manage to save 20 per cent of this money each week for four years, they will have a deposit of $73,202. That's still nowhere near the 20 per cent deposit required by banks for most of their home leading, but assuming they are accepted for a loan, they will need a $596,498 mortgage. Their weekly repayments will be about $725 or 45 per cent of their take-home pay. Anything over 40 per cent is considered unaffordable, as it eats into a household's ability to pay for essential items such as food, bills and transport costs.

The yawning gulf between house prices and the average person's savings is not shrinking.

We know that many people do manage to buy, despite the odds. Two of the couples from our Home Truths series last year eventually managed it. Gemma Mann and Mike Alsweiler bought in Ranui after lifting their budget from $600,000 to $720,000, which became possible only after they both received pay rises. Bharat Bhushan and Lovely Garg downsized their dream of a $650,000 stand-alone home to find a $550,000 three-bedroom townhouse in Glen Eden, putting them on the first rung of the property ladder. And there is no shortage of miracle stories about young people buying properties - but nearly always with financial help that most New Zealanders can only dream of or "hole-in-the-road" tales of self denial that verge on the ridiculous.

Sadly, the long-term numbers still don't add up for most first-home buyers. Property ownership in Auckland has fallen from a high of 75 per cent in 1991 to 61 per cent in 2013, but the trend is even worse as many home owners are now over 60. The percentage of 45- to 49-year-olds who don't own a house has doubled to 35 per cent and only half of Aucklanders in their late 30s were home owners in 2013, before the latest price surge. At this rate fewer than half of Auckland households are expected to own their home within the next 20 years. That risks an ugly divide between the "landed gentry" - as economist Shamubeel Eaqub put it - and have-nots, who feel permanently shut out.

- NZ Herald

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