Properties find place in the sun

By Bruce Morris

While the residential property market is looking wobblier by the month, Mt Eden and Epsom are having their day in the sunshine - with median property prices taking a whopping 53 per cent leap in the last quarter.

The two prime city suburbs and several on their borders seem so far to have escaped the fallout, enjoying a period of strong growth that has left the rest of the city in the shade.

Median price data from the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand show Mt Eden/Epsom (which also covers Balmoral, Royal Oak, Greenlane, One Tree Hill and Newmarket) is streets ahead of the Auckland pack.

In the first nine months of this year, the median price in the area jumped to $720,000 - up 19 per cent, more than three times the average Greater Auckland increase.

The same patch has recorded a staggering (you could almost say unbelievable) 53 per cent leap in median price in the full year to September 30. But statistics can do funny, aberrant things. The three-month launching pad median at September 30 last year coincided with a local slump that produced a price around 16 per cent lower than a year earlier - perhaps caused by fewer-than-usual sales of expensive homes. Today, the September 2006 median looks wildly out of kilter, leaving the feeling that too much shouldn't be read into that 53 per cent leap.

Still, it's obviously been a good year for Mt Eden-Epsom (new median record), with daylight to second place (East Coast Bays at 19 per cent, if you ignore the limited number of sales in the Gulf islands) and streets ahead of traditional achievers like Milford/Takapuna (flat so far this year).

Homeowners in the area will appreciate their position at the top of the growth pile so far for 2007: Mt Eden-Epsom had a fairly flat three years leading up to 2006 and the latest surge has helped to close the gap on the Auckland high-flyers.

The institute's data needs to be treated with some caution when it comes to individual patches because so many suburbs are merged in one grouping.

Take the "eastern suburbs" category, for example, which includes sales in Glendowie, Kohimarama, Meadowbank, Mission Bay, Orakei, Parnell, Remuera, St Heliers, St Johns. In the first nine months of this year, the median price increased 11 per cent - but that is unlikely to have been across the board. Orakei and St Johns might have done well, for example, and Mission Bay and Remuera could have been flat; the statistics lump them all in together to give an overall indication.

For a better idea how individual suburbs are performing, QV provides a clearer breakdown, using much smaller geographical areas. Their data are more precise: they are based on the registration of all property sales (as opposed to the institute's statistics, which focus only on sales by its members, and records them at the time agreements go unconditional). Perhaps 10 to 15 per cent of New Zealand house sales fall outside the institute's influence.

But back to Mt Eden/Epsom. If there's a truism about real estate in Auckland, it is that it is hard to go wrong buying in older, established areas close to the city centre and served by great schools.

When the market slips, you might have to bide your time before reaping a decent capital gain minus all the expenses, but you'll get there in the end. Mt Eden/Epsom is part of the city's blue chip property belt.

However, as the statistics show, you don't have to be surrounded by villas and leafy streets close to Queen St to enjoy capital gain.

In the end, price growth in residential property is fuelled by simple supply and demand. When prices in one suburb get a little ahead of themselves, buyers will resist paying and switch their attention to around the corner and over the hill. The result over time: a flattening in one area and a spurt in the other.

So don't despair if you own a home in Milford/Takapuna (no increase in median price this year, which, with inflation, effectively means your asset has gone backwards), Onehunga/Penrose or Mt Albert (both up just 5 per cent).

It could have been worse (Devonport is down 3 per cent for the first nine months of 2007) and probably doesn't mean much more than that the sun may shine on your roof sooner than others once the market turns. The traditional real estate cycle means that everywhere attracts the sun at some stage, assuming a nuclear power station or gang headquarters don't pop up overnight in the neighbourhood.

The secret is being smart or lucky enough to buy before the heat arrives.

In the first nine months of this year, price growth in Manurewa was at 8 per cent, slightly above the wider Auckland median. But who, in 2003, would have picked Manurewa to be the standout area in Greater Auckland over the next four years? As it happened, low base prices lured investors and first-home buyers, pushing prices up by 76 per cent - more than twice the rate of the eastern suburbs, and nearly twice that of Mt Eden/Epsom.

The issue now is that the clouds are forming over Auckland and the rest of the country as interest rate rises and credit squeezes impact on escalating prices.

After five or six years where the seller ruled the roost, the pendulum has swung and it's now starting to look like a buyer's market.

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