Bruce Morris sees nothing to halt the rise in house prices this year, especially in Auckland. But as interest rates turn in 2014, the picture will become more complicated
So where do we go to from here - more of the same, a levelling off or a dip? The Auckland house price recovery has started to filter out to the provinces in a muted way, but will it have enough momentum by the end of the year to hold its ground against the inevitability of rising mortage rates?
Interesting, and important, questions - not least for a Government worried about being caught up in an electionyear tangle over affordable housing and a Reserve Bank seeking a better-balanced economy.
Both will be looking at Auckland with increasing alarm: the first two months of the year have seen no easing in demand and prices have continued to move. Volumes have been up nearly 40 per cent on the lows of three or four years ago (though still down 25 per cent down on the boom peaks), but demand still far outweighs supply. It is a strong sellers' market and, so far, 2013 has not brought any sign of easing.
The upturn started in the central city suburbs a full two years ago and was slow to catch on when the world economy was really stuttering. But it has since spread along the motorways to the outer suburbs and now embraces even the most far-flung areas of the Supercity - although the greater the distance from Queen St, the more subdued the activity.
At the heart of the Auckland price revival is a lack of building since the Global Financial Crisis and a steadily growing population encouraged by opportunity and jobs. But had it not been for record low mortgage rates, it may not have come to much.
At the overall market peak at the end of 2007, New Zealand - and specifically Auckland - had some of the world's most expensive homes on a household income basis. The gap closed a little through the flat two or three years following but, with limited wage movement and racing prices, it is now back towards the top of the pile.
Logic would suggest limited upside from here until wages start to catch up, especially with interest rate rises probably less than a year away and renting looking comparatively cheap. But the banks are awash with term deposits and are chasing market share with enticing deals, looking to capture homeowners for the long term.
Investors, more optimistic now about capital gain, are also firmly back in play, especially in the more blue-collar suburbs - and, as they did in the boom years, are helping to drive up prices at the lower levels. Tax advantages mean an investor can buy at a price a new-home buyer would find too elevated, even when rental returns are poor.
For Auckland, back to that opening question: where to from here?
As confidence levels rise, many analysts are picking New Zealand prices will climb 7 or 8 per cent this year. With Auckland's weighting, that could translate to double-digit growth for some city suburbs.
It's the sort of figure the Reserve Bank may tolerate as it waits - one eye on the high-flying dollar - to react to inflationary pressures with the first of the projected interest rate rises late this year or early 2014. But it has long talked of its work on macro-prudential tools, such as loan-to-value ratio restrictions, and will reveal its hand with a public document late this month. If it adopts a plan of attack like that, some of the sting may be taken out of price rises, though in the shortterm will hardly make it easier for new-home buyers.
The Government? It could do plenty to quell the immediate heat and create better balance in the economy over time - like the suggestions of easing investor tax advantages, backed with a capital gains tax, or limiting ownership to permanent residents - though that is not its inclination. Increasingly, affordable housing and policies to keep a rein on prices are looming as key election issues.
While all the signs are that Auckland prices will continue to rise through 2013, there is no consensus on what will happen next year. Some economists and analysts are suggesting an increase of 3 per cent or so while others are predicting a flat market or even a small decline. It all depends how quickly rates climb and what other economic influences emerge.
Out in the regional areas, some of the statistics suggest things are on the move. But it's hard to pin down much to get excited about.
PropertyIQ's housing index showed that while Auckland prices rose on average by 10.2 per cent over 2012 and (at December 31) were up 12.4 per cent from the 2007 peak), the rest of the North Island looked fairly anaemic:
• Hamilton was up by 3.7 per cent for the year and down 7.7 per cent from the peak
• Taupo: +0.8 per cent and -13.9 per cent
• Rotorua: +1.7 per cent and -14 per cent
• Tauranga: -1 per cent and -11.8 per cent
• Whangarei: -0.1 per cent and -17.5 per cent
• Hastings: +1.4 per cent and -6.6 per cent
• Napier: +0.5 per cent and -6.7 per cent
• New Plymouth: +3.2 per cent and -2.7 per cent
• Palmerston North: +3.8 per cent and -5.5 per cent
• Wanganui: +1.5 per cent and -13.3 per cent
• Wellington City: +2.1 per cent and -4.5 per cent
Of the upper-North Island cities, Hamilton is doing best.
After four years of relative stagnation, buyers and sellers started to come into balance last year and houses are now moving relatively briskly.
Prices are inching their way up in response to the greater demand, and entry-level buyers are spending up to $330,000 or $340,000. Sections at a new sub-division in the north-east of the city are selling at around $250,000, a decent shift from the $160,000-$170,000 levels of three and four years ago, though the developments will place a lid on further price lifts. The city seems likely to enjoy the same sort of gentle appreciation in the year ahead that it found through 2012.
In Rotorua, Tauranga and Whangarei, meanwhile, progress is sluggish. Volumes are edging up, but prices are static as real estate agents look for some signs that the ripple running out of Auckland will reach their boundaries. While it is unlikely prices will go backwards this year, it is hard to see rises much beyond the rate of inflation - not much of a springboard for 2014 when interest rates move.
Out in the provincial towns, jobs and dwindling populations are a problem and only a supreme optimist would be betting on real term growth in 2013.
Those towns - from Kaitaia and Dargaville in the north to Kawerau, Tokoroa, Turangi and Taumarunui further south - tend to rise in value only after vigorous growth in the provincial cities. When the cities are generally restrained - and when, in a low mortgage rate environment, demand has been insipid - the provincial towns continue to face difficult times, falling further behind. If prices cannot grow when interest rates are low, what chance for a catch-up when they rise?
Those provincial eyes must look despairingly at the Auckland suburban statistics as the gap continues to widen between city and country.
At the top of the list of the Auckland suburbs surging ahead last quarter (shown in the table accompanying this article, and laid out in the centre data display) is Ponsonby, which PropertyIQ's E-Valuer shows had an 8.9 per cent advance in average price in the three months to December 31. That seems extravagant and no doubt will be pulled more into line over time, but the interesting point in our "top 10 quarter climbers" is the wide spread of suburbs - geographically and by value.
Ponsonby (with an average value at December 31 of $1,165,389), Mairangi Bay ($814,444) and Half Moon Bay ($702,000) are joined in the table by suburbs like Manurewa East ($326,444), Bayview ($493,556) and Beach Haven ($507,778).
It clearly shows the extent of price rises across the Supercity, flowing on from the central old Auckland City Council suburbs which started to move ahead of the pack around two years ago.
Another strong indicator of price movement over that time is the advance on the July 2011 rating capital values.
PropertyIQ measures actual sales against individual CVs and, if the number of sales is high enough, that detail can give a strong guide to overall prices within a suburb.
A close look at that data (10th column from the left in our central spread of statistics) reveals that some of the more modest suburbs are now making the greatest strides. Areas such as Glen Innes (where sales last quarter were up 31.9 per cent on average above their 2011 CVs), New Windsor (up 32.5 per cent) and Bayswater (up 29.6 per cent) lead the Aucklandwide list - and a pile of lower-valued suburbs were up more than 20 per cent.
Meanwhile, some of the fancier suburbs (Takapuna up 4.3 per cent; Mission Bay up 6.3 per cent; and Herne Bay up 6.6 per cent) aren't going quite so strongly, though big percentage gains are more difficult to achieve from a $1 million-plus base.
The data gives support to the anecdotal evidence that prices in the upper levels - above $2 million, say - are not racing away.
Of the 153 suburbs and towns in the new city with enough sales to track performance, only four - Omaha, Snells Beach, Oneroa and Clarks Beach - produced overall average sale prices last quarter that fell below the 2011 capital valuations and even then the declines were minor. It is no great surprise to find those centres at the tail of the Auckland field because all of them are at least partially driven by the influence of the discretionary "bach" market that has still to turn the corner.
While competitive bidding from buyers frustrated at continually missing out may be pushing some Auckland homes above rational value, there are fewer signs today of the frenetic activity which produced premium prices for mediocre homes during the 2002-2007 boom.
Simon Damerell, co-principal of Ray White Ponsonby, saw "rubbish" drawing big prices in the boom, but says buyers are more discerning today.
"There is no doubt that the market is very, very healthy," he says, "but there is also caution among buyers. They are not just being irresponsibly rash. On the one hand, they may look at a property and say, 'that is a classic home of quality and I need to pay serious money to own it'. But on the other hand, if a property is, say, in a gully, the wrong style for the area or constructed in monolithic cladding, then buyers are expecting the price to be discounted to reflect that."
Damerell lists four attributes which, combined, will result in a good price on his patch covering the country's most expensive real estate: location, style, quality and elevation.
"If four out of four are right, then people will compete for the right to buy, and the price will reflect that competition," he says. "But if one or two of those are missing, then there will be more caution and people will not pay a premium."
However, chasing the same four attributes out in the country will hardly close the gap on city values. The average price in Herne Bay is close to $2 million - enough to buy 20 properties in Kaikohe or Kawerau. All the rural style, quality and elevation available will have no impact on the real estate feature that really translates into dollars: location.