Our Interrelated Property Cycles – easy ‘windfall’ gains – but, what’s the Consequence?

Our Interrelated Property Cycles – easy ‘windfall’ gains – but, what’s the Consequence?

Take a cursory look through the international press and reports on housing related matters, and it could be merged it into one text as property cycles become increasingly interrelated and investors search for ‘safe havens’ off-shore.

Overwhelmingly – affordability – bubbles – the rise of Asian investors – and fears over a new breed of non-home owning ‘renters’ dominates, and although headline chasing would place any sensationalist report front of line, the reader comments and related dialogue that follow, present a familiar picture for the ordinary home buyer – no matter what reforms are taken, it never seems to get any easier.

You could be forgiven in thinking it’s by some abject force of nature, bustled in at the time of the ‘big bang’ that property – (or as I pointed out here, ‘land’) – is deemed ‘unaffordable.’ Outpacing wage growth and inflation through the course of a cycle, subject to the whims of a bank’s propensity to lend – burdening buyers with one of the most stressful experiences they’ll go through in life.

Or in the bleak words of the eminent poet Leonard Cohen;

“Everybody knows…. That’s just the way it goes.”

This is what the real estate and finance industry would have you believe as they navigate through the fluctuations of the property cycle with authoritative analysis, on what and where to buy.  And no doubt, it’s been a prosperous affair.

The number of ‘property investment books’ written by the I Did It – And You Can Too! experts, belies belief. And yet, becoming successful in the game isn’t incredibly hard for anyone with an ounce of locational common sense. The authors are simply singing their own interpretation of an age-old song titled ‘Monopoly.’

Over the course of a business cycle, which is both lead by, and correlated to the housing cycle, the gains – more correctly termed economic rent or “earnings from land,” alone – by far and away surpass those that can be gleaned from other more productive investments.

This was stressed in a recent submission by “Earthshare Australia” to the upcoming Senate enquiry into housing affordability

Unearned incomes in land increased a whopping $187 billion in the December 2013 quarter alone (ABS 6416). Total yearly dividends (2013), for investors engaged in risk, was recently reported at $84 billion – $103 billion less for an entire year.”

(Leaving them to question) “Why invest in small business or the ASX when one can earn more for less risk at a lower tax rate as a land speculator?”

These gains occur primarily because we choose to leave the larger proportion of ‘economic rent’ (mistakenly termed, ‘capital growth’ – however in this context, we are talking about the unimproved value of the site) locked in the land, rather than recycled back into community – from where it evolved.

Hence why housing is so expensive – the financial benefit derived from improving the surrounding facilities, is not effectively utilised – and our tax and supply policies do little to assist.

The Henry Tax review was not slow to point this out, when it suggested progressively scrapping a vast array of ‘bad taxes’ (payroll, insurance, vehicle registration, stamp duty, and forth, as well as reducing those that ‘reward’ speculation) and instead, collecting more of the economic rent of natural resources – significantly ‘land.’ (Notwithstanding, it was another Government ‘review’ which fell largely on deaf ears.

Yet, historically, the capture of economic rent (through land tax and to some extent ‘betterment’ taxes) financed some of the most remarkable infrastructure we have. Sydney Harbour Bridge being a case in point.

The tale of a Bridge and our accumulated wealth….

It was acknowledged at the time, that residents on the north shore would benefit significantly from an increase in their property values as a result of this essential piece of infrastructure.  Therefore, a framework was set in place to capture a proportion of the uplift – approximately one third – to assist with funding.

This was in no way detrimental to the property owners.

The increased advantage of economic activity coupled with the rise in prices resulting from the enterprise, more than compensated. A win-win if you like – and readily accepted by the public as ‘fair.’

Over time, changes in the way both state and federal government collected tax moved focus away from land values, onto productivity, effectively, placing a fine on labour and doing a good job of keeping us asset rich and income poor.

It’s great for the haves – but not the ‘have-nots’ (our growing pool of tenants.)

Consequently, the wealth locked in our residential land market, through the process of this accrued speculation – sits at post $4 trillion (add the buildings on top, and it’s an estimated $5.02 Trillion.)

It’s so large a number; it’s almost meaningless in real terms.

Western civilisation has not been around for a trillion seconds – go back a trillion seconds  – (31,688 years) – and you’d see Neanderthals roaming throughout Europe.

Yet our housing market is worth 5 of them.  It’s quite an achievement.

In comparison, the UK housing market is assessed to be $5.2 trillion with a population of around 60 million, so the distribution across a population of 23 million, is telling.

It’s this, that enables publications, such as the ‘‘Global Wealth Report’ produced annually by Credit Suisse, to assess Australian’s to be the ‘richest in the world’ in median terms.

In other words – if you stand everyone in a long line, richest to poorest, the middleman has more ‘asset’ wealth than any other country assessed.

It should therefore come as no surprise that our wealthy know where to ‘bank’ their dollars – and it’s not down the high street

As economist Adair Turner and others have pointed out in response to a recent report by Oxfam, which demonstrates how Britain’s five richest families are wealthier than the poorest 20% of the population.  The riches are only in part derived through productive activity – the vast ‘wealth’ however, has been derived through ‘rents’ (unearned gains) in land.

If you thought wars were about religion – think again.

The compounded rent is effectively what we pay for when acquiring real estate – a calculation that takes into account expectations of future growth, minus expenses for the time held – along with a range of other variables such as wages and borrowing rates.

Yet capturing a greater percentage of annual land values, whilst at the same time reducing those on productivity holds much in its favour.

  • It reduces the propensity of boom/bust housing cycles,
  • Encourages timely construction and effective utilisation (good for both the economy, employment and consequently, our welfare state)
  • Aids infrastructure financing,
  • Supports decentralisation,
  • Assists in keeping the cost of shelter affordable – levelling to some degree, the playing field between non-owners and owners.
  • And importantly, in regions where it’s been implemented with success – Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania being examples -most owners pay less tax when there’s a shift from productivity onto land, than would be the case otherwise

Change ahead?

Of course, to change the mindset of any nation that has been encouraged to use their housing investments as leverage for economic activity, a welfare fund for retirement, collateral for the advancement of business and commerce, and an ATM for family emergencies, is no easy task.

Not to mention the many vested interests in both Government and the property industry, all of which derive their income from the promotion of it.

However, it’s vitally important we do so – because it sits at the very base of every conversation Government is current having regarding the welfare state, cutting pensions, and increasing the working age until retirement.

Even in our technological age of driverless cars, lasers that can change the weather, 3D printers that can produce substitute body parts, and solar farms that can produce enough energy to run a small city, nothing is possible without the land which gives us the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and a rich array of commodities to fuel our appetite for ‘growth.’

There is nothing to be gleaned in from the hording of land, and whilst secure private tenure of property is vital in so much as land needs to be cared for, cultivated, and effectively utilised, a proportion of ‘unearned’ economic gains that come from the locational rent of the unimproved value alone – should not be privatised to the extent that prices escalate through the inducement of speculative gain.

Can supply policy solve it alone?

We talk a lot about supply, but whilst the status quo exists – rising land values being used as the primary driver for economic growth – high prices ensure land will only developed for profit, timed to capture the upward wave of a cycle, rather than developed to meet the immediate needs of a home buyer, which does little to deter the wasteful process of land banking.

It is not insignificant that the burdens to supply policy, which we consistently criticise – the structural impediments to development – were implemented along side a gradual shift of the rental capture of land, onto productivity.

As Bob Day asserts in his submission to the Senate debate on Housing affordability, (first published; Home Truths Revisited May 2013)

“The regulatory seeds of the housing affordability crisis were sown in the 1970s. Until then land was abundant and affordable, and the development of new suburbs was largely left to the private sector”

The 1970’s was not only the point at which urban zoning (a process of false scarcity) was imposed by state Governments – it also came at a time at which any hope of tax capturing the fair uplift in land values to keep construction timely and offset soaring costs, had been truly eroded.

This, coupled with a shift in infrastructure financing – as private enterprise played an ever-increasing role and projects were no longer provided with capacity ahead of time, but required to prove revenue – ‘user pays’ whilst homeowner benefits – was the beginning of the end.

A Glance Back At Policy..

Early settlers had rejected the British system of taxing both land and buildings, in favour of the methods advocated by the classical economist Henry George, who had previously presented his ‘single tax’ theory in Australia to thunderous success.

However, over time, the Government’s inept and poor administration in the regularity and standard of valuations, the creeping in of exemptions (including the family home) coupled with lobbying from large landholders – a group which have historically maintained the greatest political clout – significantly eroded the system, and by the 1950s an array of taxes were falling increasingly on productivity, rather than land.

In 1953 when the Menzies Government abolished the Federal Land Tax, rapid ‘post war’ population growth had firmly laid the foundations for a thirst to profit through ‘capital gain’ (mounting land values.)

The then Labour party – which had historically always rallied in favour of raising revenue from the economic rent of land rather than productivity, were up in arms, prompting Arthur Calwell to speak in opposition of the plan, passionately declaring

“…We have always believed in the land tax….The land belongs to the people, and its use must be safeguarded and protected at all times!” ((Hansard, Vol 221, pp 165-170 passim)

However, it was the beginning of the end.  Up until 1961 it was an integral part of the Labour platform.  By 1963 however, the commitment had been omitted all together, apparently, without conference approval. (Cameron Clyde “How Labor Lost Its Way”  “Progress” May-June 2005)

When Whittlam came to power in 1972 (see Bob Day’s comment above) he ignored any call to bring in legislation to collect the economic rent of land, instead of levying heavy direct and indirect taxes on income, and in so doing, a politically fabricated boom in land values was underway.

In the decades that followed, the promotion of negative gearing (1985), halving of the capital gains on investors (1999), onerous levies on development and upfront infrastructure costs passed onto buyers – grants, incentives and so forth, had little to do with the delivery of affordable housing, and everything to do with escalating land prices.

It should come as no surprise then, that large landowners and the commission side of the real estate industry, shy away from any changes to the tax system. The smoke screen debates on affordability and scrapping negative gearing are just that.

So what now?

Due to China-led resilience and economic stimulus Australia, although in no way unscathed, avoided the disastrous consequences of 2008, resulting in thousands of foreclosures across the US and Europe, whilst banks were bailed and families continue to be evicted.

Not so the recession that marked the early 1990s.

Affecting 17 out of 18 comparable OECD countries, high unemployment, a large current account deficit and elevated level of foreign debt left many economists gloomy Australia would ever achieve long lasting economic recovery.

Endless debate was given to the causes and consequence, which left policy makers reassuring the community that lessons’, would be learnt! However, as the then Governor of the RBA, Ian McFarlane, later summed up in his 2006 Boyer lecture;

“Any boom built on rising asset prices financed by increased borrowing has to end.”

And considering the date this lecture was given (2006,) the following comment was insightful;

No-one though has a clear mandate at the moment to deal with the threat of major financial instability associated with an asset price boom and bust.”

It’s unfortunate that “no-one” happens to be our most influential political and economic policy makers – and indeed, we’re not alone.

After every economic crisis, there is always the promise that events will never happen again – safe guards are put in place and eventually the wreckage is cleared, however happen they do, and reforms that promise otherwise, repeatedly fail.

Significantly, globalisation, the interrelating of major economies, is adding to the volatile nature of each economic downturn.  As Wayne Swan asserted in his speech “A Future Of Promise” given at The Sydney institute in 2007;

“It is, truly, the sharpest synchronised global downturn in living memory…And it’s being inflicted on good Australians through no fault of their own.”

No cycle is exactly the same, but whilst history may not exactly mirror the past, patterns do.

There’s only one reason we have devastating house price booms and busts – the pre marker to any recession and economic disaster, and that is speculation induced in this case, through the privatisation of unearned gains.  And whilst some continue to reap a windfall from exploiting the process, we really need to pause and ask – ‘”Who is it really benefitting?”

It’s time for change.

Catherine Cashmore

A Look At The Market Through Foreign Eyes

A Look At The Market Through Foreign Eyes

I had the good fortune to meet two investors from Dallas Texas last week – visiting in part, to survey the Australian real estate terrain and in return, provide a unique opportunity to glimpse the madness of it all through foreign eyes.

A cursory look through the press paints a colourful picture for our visiting observers.  Obviously, the spectacular rise in Sydney’s valuations has come under incredible scrutiny over the past 12 months or so.

Like any upswing in the ‘property cycle,’ it’s been exacerbated by a mix of forces, culminating in a shortage of effective supply against a bull run of speculation, which all agree has an inevitable end-by-date and no doubt subsequent ‘correction’ when the tide changes.  (‘When’ being the operative word.)

The latest stats from RP Data’s capital city ‘Home value Index’ for the first quarter of the 2014 have evidenced “a near record level of growth throughout the month of March” rising in excess of 2% coupled with an “ongoing escalation in housing finance commitments.”

Sydney dwelling values are now reportedly 15.8% higher than their previous peak, some distance from Melbourne, which shows a more ‘subdued’ 4.7% ‘post peak’ increase (movements, which in industry ‘speak’ are neatly termed a ‘recovery.’)

In response, the RBA, are like ‘a read blowing in the wind,’ employing the same old wooden tools they’ve always relied upon as they warn investors in their latest Financial Stability Review, – (like last year’s review, when stating how undesirable” it would be “if households were to exhibit less prudent behaviour than they have over the past few years”) – that the;

..cyclical upswing.. cannot continue indefinitely..” and any ease in lending rates holds the “potential to encourage speculative activity in the housing market….”

Community service groups hurriedly rush to Canberra, flagging a wealth inequality crisis, presenting yet another shandy of submissions to the ‘rinse and repeat’ sequel of the last Senate enquiry into Housing Affordability,

And as Barclay’s Chief Economist Keiran Davies sounds the alarm, reporting household debt to disposable income has hit a record “177% peak,” the public outcry against foreign investment ‘bidding up prices’ has prompted the Coalition’s conservative version – reminiscent of Kevin Rudd’s 2010 ‘1-800-I-SAW-AN-ASIAN-AT-AN-AUCTION’  debacle – to assess “what is happening on the ground” and stave off the growing concerns that seem to indicate rules are not being adhered to.

The analysis my two new friends from Texas would hear from Economists in response to the above backdrop is equally schizophrenic.

Whilst Governor of the RBA’s Glenn Steven’s is telling audiences that a modest overheating in housing markets could have “long-term negative consequences for economic growth.”  AMP’s Chief Economist Dr Shane Oliver is assuring the “normative” response to low interest rates producing a sharp surge in established house (land) prices, is “great news for the economy!”

According to Oliver;

“Housing may show an “overvaluation criteria for a bubble,” but, we’re not in one yet, otherwise “property spruikers [would be] out in a big way” or “buyers rushing in for fear of missing out!”

Obviously Dr Oliver has not been attending many auctions or property seminars of late – otherwise he’d have plenty of evidence of the above practices (at least in the two biggest capitals.)  They’re all but engraved into Australian culture.

Notwithstanding, Christopher Joye is back to the task of boosting his readership figures, evidencing the quite the opposite – warning ‘overvalued prices’ could see “unprecedented 10 to 20 per cent losses across the board” when/if the market ‘normalises.’

Grave concerns indeed, albeit, it whistles the same tune as most industry commentary regarding affordability, with anxieties only going so far as to ensure an already inflated platform can be sustained (through ‘prudent lending,’ of course) without open and strong advocacy into the policies that would stop these cyclical peaks and ‘corrections,’ which result in numerous ‘crash’ predictions, inevitable pain for new home buyers, a real wealth inequality crisis – for what seems to be for no more than generating publicity, whilst maintaining the ‘status quo.’

“Build more houses!”

Unfortunately, the assumption – both here, and overseas – remains, that the only way to make houses more affordable, is to increase the supply of new dwellings.

Building more accommodation seems like an easy prescriptive cure, with supply verses demand being a well-tested economic model – that is, until it comes to the land market.

We can’t seem to deliver this supply at normative prices for the locational price/distance trade off.

Speculative activity, further promoted by a constipated planning system, has resulted in ever increasing land values, on ever decreasing ‘lot’ sizes.

Analysis by RP Data shows vacant land prices over the past 20 years, have lifted from a median rate of $76.47 per square metre, to $507.70 per square metre, as of the end of 2013. Whilst the average ‘lot’ size has dropped from 700 square metres, to 500 square metres – and in some states, less than 400 square metres over the same period.

Obviously reforms to the planning process would greatly assist, however contrary to common belief, it would not alone provide a cure.

To truly restore housing back to ‘fair’ value, we would have to remove the level of speculation manufactured into the structural design of our housing market and this is one side of policy reform Government has repeatedly refused to address.

Speculation

To be clear, an increase in the natural price of land, is an expected result when economies are improving due – for example – to capital investment in infrastructure, as is the case in Australia currently, with Tony Abbot’s desire to be knighted the ‘Infrastructure Prime minister.’

Infrastructure intensifies the use and demand for land as the population grows, assisting job creation and collaboration between individuals.

Therefore, taken alone, rising values should be a ‘good’ thing for our country – (and economy) – or at least they would be, if the gains truly benefitted the community.

Any manufactured improvement to a location’s public amenities, gifts a beneficial trade-off to the owner, who receives a windfall in remuneration as the resulting economic impact boosts productivity.

This increase in values is what economist’s term ‘economic rent,’ although expressed rather misleadingly in popular vocabulary as ‘capital growth.’

To clarify – ‘capital’ infers something that can be reproduced through productive activity, however we know from housing data, that the true gain in “house prices” is really collected in the rising cost of land, which takes up a 4.1 trillion dollar share of our 5.02 trillion dollar housing market.

Land Prices Vs Property

Land cannot be reproduced because it can’t be moved, it’s fixed in supply, and therefore any financial benefit derived from improving the surrounding facilities, is merely soaked into the ground

This is why ‘land banking’ is promoted within the industry as a popular ‘investment strategy’ – although to be clear, it’s not investment at all.

Investment implies the creation of wealth, whereas speculating is a zero-sum game; the wealth is not created, the landowner does nothing – and for the homeowners in Australia, lucky enough to be situated close to the best seats in town, it’s a generous tax-free unearned windfall.

Unwontedly or not, land bankers who hold their under-utilised plot in lieu of ‘capital gains,’ are ‘free loaders’ on the economy, and building activity does not respond to demand, but is only boosted when values are assessed to be on an upward trajectory.

Policies such as negative gearing, depreciation, capital gain exemptions, the encouragement to acquire properties and gear against them in self managed super funds, as well as the use of the family home as a wealth reserve for retirement, enforces speculation into the foundational makeup of our property market.

Land Cycles

But I’m not informing Australian’s of anything they don’t already know.  People have become acclimatised to property being ‘expensive,’ and our housing has become expensive because its value is derived from its accumulated and speculated future ‘capital gains’ – correctly termed economic rent.

According statistics, homebuyers typically move every ten years or so. The price they are prepared to pay, is balanced against the price they expect to achieve, minus expenses – and in all my years assisting buyers, (barring the odd downsizer) I have never met a single one who calculated otherwise.

This is why property ‘cycles’ – this is what promotes speculation.

The banking sector, which has a monopoly on this process (after all, how many can purchase a property without a mortgage?) increases the volatility of this cycle markedly, however banks, lending, money (credit) creation, lack of regulation does not cause the cycle, (or stop the cycle.)  Speculation does.

We had land booms and busts before the evolution of our modern banking system – and without a change to the structural makeup of our housing market, we’ll continue to have them.

Lending restrictions can mitigate risk, but due to the vested interests of banking system, it will not remove it to the degree needed to stop the cyclical impacts.

Easy Earnings..

Notwithstanding, for those homeowners and investors who purchased over the last decade or so, making money through buying, holding and acquiring property (land) has been a far more effective in accumulating ‘wealth’ by way of earning income and channelling it it into productive activities.

The BRW rich list is littered with examples, and for those who are not involved in the business of property, land is where they invest their dollars.

Of course, for the first homebuyer on a single wage ‘priced out’ – the mantra resumes that we just need to build more dwellings, the process of which contains just as much speculative activity in its design (including how we fund for infrastructure) so as to exacerbate the problem.

But how does it look to our Texan friends?

Well let’s just say, they’re not rushing to move here.

Texas is one of the top locations for interstate migration in America.

As with Australia, the economy has been super charged by way of a commodity boom, but unlike Australia, industries such as tech, manufacturing and business services are thriving and hiring in droves.

The expansive list my new Texan friend’s reeled off, highlighting the number companies moving their central operations into the state (rather than ‘offshore’ as they do here) is impressive, and when I asked how much they would spend purchasing a ‘home’ I was told that “3 times annual earnings” would buy the ‘best’ in town, which was summed up by the comment “like the house my parent’s own.”

Most of the units and condos in Texas are rentals – owned by large investment funds for example, and used as a hedge against inflation and source of positive cash flow.

There are less family sized rentals (detached dwellings) albeit, because housing is ‘affordable,’ there is also less demand.

Devoting earnings to building a property investment portfolio isn’t a consideration for most Texan residents.

The state didn’t experience a housing bust, because it didn’t experience a housing boom.

Texas vs Cali

The subprime crisis didn’t hit, because speculation was removed.

This was in part due to liberal and well funded supply policy, which ensures housing is built on demand, and essential infrastructure funded by way of a ‘deductable’ Municipal Utility District tax, administered by residents, funded by a bond, and payed back proportionally over a lengthy period of time.

The additional key however in what’s been termed the “Texas miracle” is low taxes on productivity, lack of state income tax and a good regulatory environment, offset by higher than average property tax.

It’s not perfect – Texas does not remove other taxes, such as sales tax, which has a destructive impact on commerce – and property is taxed as well as land (where as ideally, in a truly productive environment, only the unimproved value of land – the economic rent – should be subject to a tax, which is far easier to accurately assess than the total capital improved value.) However it makes the point.

Whilst Texas boosts and attracts productivity with lower taxes, discouraging speculation in the areas that destroy it, Australia leans to the opposite

We’re not immune to real estate crashes and there is plenty of evidence to prove their increased severity when prices are allowed to escalate. But, the best way to mitigate the risk, and protect against volatility, is to encourage the industries that advantage the working population most (manufacturing for example,) and take the air out of those that advantage land speculators the most.

Catherine Cashmore

Legally Underquoting? How Agents Get Away With It

Legally Underquoting?  How Agents Get Away With It 

Anyone in who has searched though one of the online real estate websites recently, will understand the frustration experienced when price quotes are missing – and judging from Australia’s real estate obsession, it’s no meaningless amount. The REA group alone, claim to get “8.8 million unique visitors each month.”

Putting a price on a real estate, particularly with homes offered as private treaty, is not difficult.

Ideally, an assessment of the property is undertaken by the sales agent – one familiar with market sales in the immediate locality – and in conjunction with the vendor, a price is set that produces a happy balance between both vendor expectation and local comparable sales.

If interest is lagging in the two weeks following, the agent can negotiate with the vendor to reduce the range.

If sales enquiry is healthy – or an offer in excess of the range is achieved and subsequently rejected – the agent has the ability and ethical responsibility (in conjunction with their vendor) to change the quoted range to reflect the heightened level of interest.

For a proportion of agents acting within their “reasonable” duty of service, this still is the norm.

However, now it seems every second advertisement you click upon, whether auction or private treaty has “contact agent” or a similar term listed underneath the subheading “price.”

An enquiry then produces a roundabout of guessing games with somewhat wishy-washy lines totted out, such as “it’s too early to tell.”

In other words, the agent is indicating he has no idea where to place his price quote, because Joe Blogs buyer hasn’t yet walked through and in some occurrence of pure fiction, stopped to tell the agent exactly what he’s prepared to offer.

Whilst we all agree –in a free market – real estate can only be valued on what a willing buyer is prepared to pay; this is precisely why real estate agents appraise a property against recent comparable market sales in the first place.

When combined with good local knowledge, a market appraisal (not to be confused with a valuation,) will give the agent a very good indication of buyer demand – at least to the degree of being able to publish a negotiable price range that falls in line with vendor expectation at the outset.

I should pre-empt before going further that a proportion of agents I speak to will give me a realistic idea of vendor expectation upon enquiry – however, after years of complaints within the industry regarding those who still choose to lowball their ranges, or quote using a ‘+’ price, (which in today’s terms, can mean anything from 5-30%) – there continues to be an overall lack of transparency within the sector, allowing a number of agencies (particularly when advertising for auction) to continue selling buyers “false hope” with no fear of reprimand.

To give an example, I recently attended an auction in the Balwyn High School zone.  The property was quoted at $700,000 +, and later revised to $750,000+ in the final week of the campaign.

A call to the agent indicated vendor expectation was “very reasonable,” they “hoped” to get over $800,000 I was told, but “who knows?”

The comparable data told a different story.  A price in excess of $850,000 should have been expected.  This selling agent – (an expert in the area) – would have known this, and the auction merely confirmed it.

The opening bid was $800,000 – $50,000 above the price quote.

The property did not reach its reserve until $900,000 – $150,000 above the price quote.

With competition from 7 bidders, it finally sold for $1,011,000 – but not before a neighbour I’d been casually chatting to, leaned across and revealed the ‘wish’ price, when she whispered; ‘I know the vendor, and she wants a million.’

It’s time we valued the ethical side of our sales industry with a little more seriousness than pricing an item on e-bay – with a “quote ‘em low, watch ‘em go” mantra.

The continual problem with different methods of quoting – or lack thereof – runs to the very base of mistrust most buyers have against the real estate industry as a whole – and it’s a brush that tars us all.

Even in a buoyant market, recent data will give a good pinpoint of expectation for the agent to advise their vendor’s of an appropriate reserve at the outset – should market forces take over once the property has reached that reserve, so be it – it doesn’t change was should be a simple exercise.

It seems silly to point out the obvious, but no buyer likes to play guessing games when it comes to putting a price on an advertised listing – and neither should they have to.

Everyone understands real estate is a negotiated asset, however, the verbal game playing that now surrounds the sales industry is often laughable – ranging from “we don’t know yet” to “properties in the area are selling in the $400,000 and $500,000 range” – information a simple Internet search could reveal.

When an enquiry is made regarding price, the one bit of information buyers require, is an accurate ‘ball park’ indication of vendor expectation.

Whether it’s too high, or at a reasonable level for market demand doesn’t matter – the vendor is signing the contract and therefore interested buyers need evaluate if it falls in line with their own budget constraints.

As for an assessment of value – if we were operating in an ideal world, buyers would ignore price quotes altogether and do their own research to establish market value, prior to spending hundreds on a pest and building inspections or solicitor fees chasing an unobtainable dream. However, despite recent improvements, closely comparable sales data is not always readily available.  In Victoria, many are still listed with undisclosed prices.

Computer-generated “estimates,” are just that – and more often than not, hopelessly inaccurate at providing the depth of information buyers require for effective negotiation.

Suburb reports are equally unhelpful, and while median data will give a clue of the dollars the majority market is spending, they are no help when evaluating individual property prices.

Using a buyer agent who has access to such information is all well and good – however, agents should not have a monopoly on data, and it’s reasonable to suggest buyers deserve a “hint” of vendor expectation by way of an accurate price quote before wasting time and money chasing a dream.

A handful of agencies dealing with the more volatile luxury end of the market, in which interest is discretionary, understandably choose to sell via ‘expressions of interest.’ However, the decision to drop the quoted range all together, from a large percentage of real estate advertisements seems, in a good number of cases, to have been employed as “self-protection” from accusations of “underquoting” – a policy designed to protect the sales agent – and not one that’s necessarily in the best interests of their client.

Vendor expectation can often be inflated.  It’s made worst by the commission-based competition between real estate agents and their respective agencies – which can promote the need to “buy” a listing through selling false hope, or risk missing out to a competitor who promises they can achieve more.

Quoting low ‘legally’ is not difficult. In Victoria – which has fallen under more scrutiny that any other state – if the vendor does not disclose the reserve on the sales authority when assigning their listing to an agent, (which is the general practice and advised by most) the quote does not need to reflect vendor expectation.

Instead, an agent must provide a written estimate of market value, which if a range, should be no more than a 10%.  This range is theoretically based on comparable data, but finding near by results to establish a lower price is not difficult – should that be the intention.

For example, in the story I highlighted above – comparables on nearby streets outside the schools catchment area would have placed the listing closer to the quoted range.

Similar applies within the suburb – if you’re not familiar with the good and bad streets, which attract different levels of demand, the price differences can be stark.

Albeit only by quoting below the agents written estimate of market value on the authority is officially “underquoting.” Therefore, under current legislation, the written estimate does not necessarily need to reflect vendor expectation.

It may not be admitted as such, but when agents list a property it is common practice to encourage the vendor to withhold their reserve price. This enables a conservative estimate of value – as either a verbal or published quote range – to glean as much buyer enquiry as possible.

Once again I stress, that each agent has different ethics. I am talking generally across the industry – and unfortunately, there is enough evidence of the above practices to pollute an overall impression of the whole.

Furthermore, if one agent quotes low, and another in the same suburb quotes at a level more reflective of reality – guess which listing gathers the greatest enquiry? A catch 22 for agents working to turn over business, in a very competitive commission based sector.

The only time an agent is required to adjust the range higher, is if a written offer in excess of the published figure is received. However, what typically happens in this scenario, is the number – (should there be one) – is removed altogether.

The above process of ‘quoting low,’ is sold to the vendor via an explanation of the “buyer pyramid” – it works a little like step quoting – get the lower priced bidders to build momentum during the auction, to fuel those bidding with healthier bank accounts to step in at the end.

In this scenario, during which emotions are strong, buyers tend to bid to win, rather than bid to buy. In a heated market, rational thinking is generally not employed, especially when competition is fierce and ‘fear of missing out’ ensues.

Without the lower budget bidders, auctions can pull up short lacking the usual frenzy that has – in our boom eras of growth – significantly contributed to pushing medians to unsustainable levels and exacerbating upward swings in the market cycle.

Furthermore, any gaping hole between the quote and reserve can be waved off with the excuse that the vendor ‘changed their mind’ – or ‘upped’ expectation.  Hence why it is so easy to get away with purposefully placing the price range below the level at which the vendor will sell – and when that quote is verbal, it’s arguably easier still.

To suggest that a property owner’s expectations fluctuate to such an extent so as to not be represented in the price quote is highly questionable. Having worked as a sales agent in previous years, I can categorically say there was never a time where I didn’t know my vendor’s approximate reserve well enough in advance of the auction, to place a reasonable quoted range on a listing from day one.

Furthermore, vendors are not without blame. Assuming the price quote is a estimate based on “recent comparable sales” and the vendor isn’t in the dark when it comes to the price quoted on his or her vendor-paid advertising, why would he or she agree to list the property and quote at a level they would not be willing to sell for in the first place?

In such instances, I would suggest this is a pretty good example of what should officially be termed “under quoting” – conservative at best, deceitful at worst.

There are many solutions to this puzzle, which would not be difficult to legislate.

Some states have suggested banning quotes altogether – either verbal or otherwise – but this does not take us closer to an effective solution for buyers. Additionally, it makes it very hard for a good sales agent to interact with buyers to enable them to modify their vendor’s expectation as the campaign progresses.

With this in mind, I would suggest, it’s time vendors were required to take shared responsibility (with the agency) for their own paid advertising campaigns and ensured their reserves – or ranges in which they’re prepared to negotiate within – are published at the outset and provide an accurate indication of a price they are willing to consider.

If minds are changed, quotes should be changed, but leaving such a large question mark for buyers, who are increasingly frustrated at having their time, money, and energy wasted, is damaging for all concerned.

Catherine Cashmore.