John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Home buying not a fair contest

Property investors' tax deductions give them an unfair advantage over first-house buyers

Investors now own up to 45 per cent of the houses in New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
Investors now own up to 45 per cent of the houses in New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

The day my son phoned from the auction to say he had a house I felt a surge of pride and relief and wanted to shout the news from the rooftops.

Pride, because I've read how much the dice is loaded against first-home buyers these days, and relief not only that he would no longer be renting but because I feel a sense of guilt at the prices his generation must pay.

One of the saddest sights I've seen in our society is an Auckland house auction. An excited young couple, accompanied by parents for advice and support, were bidding against a dull-eyed, poker-faced investor in rental property. The rentier won.

The agent said they usually did. It is not a fair contest, for reasons well explained by an Auckland accountant, Alan Dudson, in a contributed article published by the Herald a few months ago.

I hope Bill English read it. In my dreams his Budget on Thursday will say something like: "From midnight, interest payments on new loans for residential property will no longer be tax-deductible."

That would not worry first-home seekers since they are not allowed to deduct interest payments or other costs from their taxable income. But rentiers can and it is not fair.

Dudson wrote: "An investor in residential real estate can deduct against their rental income the costs of rates, insurance and maintenance plus all interest charges on their mortgages. For many, their sole purpose is to keep on buying more properties and mortgage gearing their portfolio so they pay little, if any, tax."

He said investors now own up to 45 per cent of the houses in New Zealand. "There is little housing stock for families to buy and when it comes on the market it is expensive and the investor will always have the advantage."

Wonder no longer that Auckland house prices are again rocketing to ridiculous heights, that the rising dollar continues to punish exports and the frightening level of foreign debt our private sector carries is invested principally in unproductive real estate.

Wonder instead that the worried Reserve Bank has resorted to selling dollars into the foreign exchange market and this week announced bank lending restrictions that will make it harder for first-home buyers to get a mortgage on a low deposit.

Wonder also that politicians argue whether the answer lies in more liberal land zoning or more state house construction, when the solution could be as quick as a tax change.

Dudson's article brought a sharp reply from the president of the New Zealand Property Investors Federation. "What a load of rot," wrote Andrew King.

"He [Dudson] believes property investors have an advantage over home buyers because they can claim a tax deduction for expenses. Of course they do, this is a basic principle of tax law, of which he should be aware."

So it's true.

King agreed that removing the deductibility of property expenses would "immediately lower the cost of housing dramatically" and warned that investors would not be the only ones to suffer.

All home owners with high mortgages would have their equity wiped out. "Be careful what you wish for," he said.

That is the rub, I suppose. House prices have been high for so long that a large section of our society has an interest not only in keeping them high but, I fear, in maintaining a tenant class in this country.

Some of the defence of rental property is coming from surprising quarters. Auckland University economics professor Tim Hazledine, writing in the Herald a few days before Dudson's piece appeared, argued the problem was not that house prices here are too high but that incomes are too low.

"We read that home ownership rates have declined to 65 per cent," he said. "Well, last time I checked home ownership rates were bang on 100 per cent: every NZ home was owned by someone. Some - a majority in New Zealand, though not in many other countries - own just one house and live in it themselves; some own additional houses which they rent out, and some are the tenants. Not a problem in itself."

Perhaps the greatest thing Margaret Thatcher did for British society was to let people buy their council houses. Long-time followers of that brilliantly sustained soap Coronation Street can recall that its dim, dinghy sets suddenly changed in the 1980s.

Outwardly the houses looked much the same but the programme's realism required interior walls to be knocked down, stairways opened up, living spaces made bright and airy. It wasn't that Britons belatedly discovered the possibilities of home renovation, they had bought the house.

Our ancestors migrated to this part of the world for a place of their own. Home ownership is in our DNA. We've made it too hard for too many.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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