Put an end to first-home buyer handouts

Put an end to first-home buyer handouts

By Catherine Cashmore
Tuesday, 17 January 2012

There’s no doubt purchasing a property is the single biggest investment most people make. Even when housing was a cheaper acquisition back in the 1950s – long before it was recognised as a common investment model and subject to turbulent property cycles, purchasing a house and servicing a mortgage was a major financial stress factor in most property owners’ lives.  It was a simpler equation then.  Most waited until they were married to make the commitment, and then tended to purchase the property they intended to stay in for the next 20 to 30 years and bring up a family.  There was little need to move or commute long distances to work, as many occupied the same job position for life.  The motivation to pay off the mortgage was a security for retirement, and equity models were largely unheard of.

We’ve come leaps and bounds since then.  Debt is no longer a dirty word but a means to “wealth creation”. House prices have been inflated by a long-established ease of lending practices, various inflationary policies such as the first-home owner’s grant, and tax incentives to encourage investors onto the property ladder. Our inability to effectively plan for future population growth has ensured prices in those areas attracting the highest demand have sustained tight vacancy rates, rising rents and unsustainable booms followed by sharp corrections in the property cycle.  And it’s hard to ignore housing affordability has split the market between those who can and those who can’t (broadly speaking, the asset-rich with access to existing equity – and the asset-poor).

The motivation to ease the pain for first-home buyers and increase affordability in particular has led to a raft of policies that have done precisely the opposite. The first-home buyer grants have been renamed by various professionals as the first-home “vendor” grant, with widespread acknowledgement that they increase competition and as a consequence, increase property prices.  The incitement to borrow against equity and increase debt with interest-only loans, decreasing loan-to-valuation ratios, and various lending models such as “rent to buy” schemes have encouraged some borrowers to invest short term – “speculating” on a continuation of the housing boom. This is dangerous territory.

In Victoria, first-home buyers are underway to get a 50% stamp duty cut by 2014, while NSW is busy reining in stamp duty cuts on established properties for first-home buyers, which will no doubt skew market prices – at least in the short term. And to confuse the equation a little further, first-home buyers could now be termed “first-investment buyers” because the choice to live at home longer and purchase the first property as an investment rather than principal place of residence is now encouraged as a method to establish a foothold.

Neither does it help to see numerous “get-rich-quick” schemes wafted around like confetti. As I write, an email with the headline “How Linda Built a $12k per Month Positive Income (from property) in Just 6 Years” has landed in my inbox, and I don’t need to emphasise it sounds too good to be true.  Everyone’s looking for short cuts into what should always and principally be regarded as a long-term investment with the primary purpose of providing shelter – and not just to creating wealth.

In short, the only effective way to ease house prices is to increase supply in “liveable” areas of the city (areas with enough amenities to provide jobs, transport and options for those able to make the move into newer estates).  However, seeing as this isn’t happening at any great pace, and it’s unlikely that the already established incentives such as depreciation models and incentives will be abolished and further constrain inflation, we have to move our focus to a more traditional path.

Among all attempts by government to encourage home ownership, the only real policy that seemed to have the potential of genuinely addressing affordability was the introduction of the first-home savers’ account. It was launched back in 2010 as a high-interest, low-tax saving account, set up specifically to assist first-home buyers enter the market.  It committed (and educated) purchasers to save over a four-year period, however on the proviso funds were “locked” for the entirety of that period and only accessible for use towards home ownership at the end of the term.  Furthermore, requirements were for at least $1,000 savings to be deposited per year. Therefore those taking up the scheme had to have a long-term plan, secure employment, and plenty of dedication and vision to stick to the contract – something our 21st-century lifestyle rebels against.

As touched upon above, changes in employment are expected, particularly among the first-home buyer generation, and understandably there was reluctance to lock away funds with no “get out” plan for an extended period of time.  Therefore, take-up was initially poor. From a predicted 750,000 accounts, just 15,300 were created, with only $40 million spent out of the $1.2 million originally allocated. Thankfully there’s been some relaxation on the previous conditions, and funds can now be accessed before four years if a purchase occurs beforehand.  However, the changes have come too late and as far as I’m aware, the savers’ accounts are now only offered by a limited number of smaller lending institutions. For those interested, more information can be accessed here.

Thankfully there’s been a gradual trend towards the psychology of saving and paying down debt since the GFC.  This isn’t isolated to Australia; the reaction has been the same worldwide – it’s natural in such times.  It’s also significant that the changes have been prevalent in gen Y’s age group.  Westpac New Year’s Financial Resolution Survey questioned 2,000 Australian’s on their prospective spending habits for 2012. The results showed that three out of four gen Ys were committed to a focus on saving in the new year, and this can only be welcomed.

However, how long the changes will last is debatable, especially considering further talks of rate cuts by the RBA, which are solely designed to get us out there spending once again and will in turn stimulate inflation in the housing market.  There’s no argument from consumers that the rate cut was needed, however as has been pointed out many times, what’s needed in one sector isn’t necessarily needed in all.

Underlying demand and a shortage of homes in the capital cities will keep growth in house prices on an upward curve; the concern is around how many we are locking out the market with “kind” inflationary incentives that do nothing to educate our future workforce of the real tricks to building wealth and sustaining growth over the long term – principally saving, limited spending and wise long-term investment of the surplus.  One of the problems that led us full throttle into the GFC in the first place was short-focused, irresponsible unrestricted lending practices (principally in the US), which promised purchasers they could jump into home ownership without the strict self-governance of basic lessons such as the ability to comfortably service debt.  We thankfully didn’t have the same phenomenon here, however if we keep feeding the psychology that when the going gets tough someone will produce the taxpayer cheque book, we’re in the process of building bubbles and unstable foundations.

The lesson isn’t just one that needs to come from above.  It starts at home – according to various surveys, including one recently conducted by Rabo Direct, one in five gen Xs agree with more than 35% of gen Ys who accept that the only way they will be able to purchase a property is through handouts from their family (who purchased the traditional way, with no help and stricter lending conditions and generally higher interest rates).

Is it really that much harder now than it was then?  Well, yes, it is if initial expectation is too high.  We often see headlines exclaiming that the Australian dream is no longer a suburban detached house with ample backyard for games of cricket, but instead has been replaced with apartment living.  It’s not a replacement of the dream, it’s acceptance from those who are unprepared to move into the outer, more affordable, suburban areas, that they need to compromise and build towards the dream or accept a long commute to work.

So let’s drop the incentives, the handouts, and get back down to basic education. Housing is expensive and no one – government included – is going to step in and relieve the pain.  Therefore teach your children to start saving young and build stepping stones towards their long-term dreams – one of which should always be home ownership (most don’t want a life time renting and yet that’s what we’re slowly heading towards).

Take advantage of educational incentives such as the first-home savers’ account, but don’t give the lesson with a handout.  Warren Buffet is over quoted, however when you read his pearls of wisdom you can understand why – “A very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing.” The valuable long-lasting lessons are the ones we work hard for.

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