The Roughan family of TVNZ's Our First Home are no relation as far as I know but having fond memories of a childhood in Eastern Southland not far from them, I watched in dismay as they were chewed up by the Auckland housing market this week.
Steph, the daughter with design flair, looked a lot like one of my sisters and had the same temperament. So I could read her face easily at a telling moment in an earlier episode when she and her boyfriend Sam were listening to the programme's marketing expert gently explain that they weren't renovating a house for themselves. The squint of her eyes and the curl of her lip said this advice was not welcome.
" I don't agree with that," she said later. "I believe it has to be a house I'd like," or words to that effect.
All three families in the reality TV programme were thoroughly likeable Kiwis, all invested their young couple's first home with the love, sweat and tears of owners who would live in it themselves. But when it came to the auctions over three nights this week, the reality of this cold, cancerous investor's market returned with a vengeance.
The Roughans made a pitiful $22,000 on the house they had transformed for two months. They got the highest price of the three houses in the contest but price wasn't the test, it was capital gain. The winning house sold for the lowest price because it had cost less to begin with and the Wotton family from Hamilton had been the best at containing the bills for their do-up. They made a gain of nearly $100,000 to go towards their son's and daughter's real first home.
My namesakes came up from their Southland farm and, according to the programme, took longest to find a house to work on in West Auckland. It wouldn't have mattered what part of Auckland the show had specified, I suspect they would have baulked at paying half a million and more for a ratty bungalow in need of repair.
So they bought a place that architect student Steph and Sam, a planner, quite liked. Big mistake. Then they set about making it a place they would really like. Bigger mistake.
In the end they had a cute and quirky house that did them proud. Asked if they might have spent too much, farmer Pat pondered and said, "No, I think we have a good product." I loved the man. Happy to play the yokel, he had fun with the townies, telling us pasture grass is quite good in salad. "Good with tomatoes."
Selective restrictions on lending for investment property in Auckland appear merely to have caused the cancer to spread to nearby cities.
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As a reflection of New Zealand today, the programme could not have been more timely. This month the country discovered the cancer has not responded to the treatment administered by the Government and the Reserve Bank six months ago. After a brief remission, house prices are rampant again, creating more unproductive wealth, taking investment and other nutrients needed by the organs the country depends on for healthy economic growth.
The return of the malignancy is evidence yet again of how hard it is to fight market forces, and that the consequences can be perverse. The market surged last winter as buyers got in ahead of the new tax and deposit regulations. Now, the selective restrictions on lending for investment property in Auckland appears merely to have caused the cancer to spread to nearby cities, which might explain why the show's contestants from Hamilton and Tauranga were more savvy purchasers. But I suspect the Southlanders did know the first rules of investment: buy cheap and don't overcapitalise. They just don't like those rules. When Pat said, "I think we have a good product," it was the voice of a more authentic economy.
The house went to a young mother holding a baby. No other bidders were visible on television. It was clearly not seen as an investment prospect, unlike the winning house which, despite facing an industrial area across the road, produced a keen auction between Asian buyers. Steph and Sam were consoled by the fact they had sold someone a home.
And her parents went back to the sheep in the green fields of the south to talk, no doubt, about their brush with the tumour gripping the cities that is causing the exchange rates they face, but more important, putting home ownership out of reach of so many, creating a society in which half, possibly more, of the population may have no patch of New Zealand that is theirs, no stake in the country, no reason to care whether it is well governed and its living standard can be sustained.
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