The NZ quarterly property review - Q1 2018

by Alistair Helm in ,


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The first quarter of 2018 is now behind us and with it the final month of the financial year. It is interesting as an aside that this last month of the financial year, through no direct result of any promotion or marketing by this industry towards the consumer, typically ends up being one of the biggest sales months of the year. Sure it's influenced by seasonal considerations but their is no denying the fact that incentives within the industry do bring more properties 'across the line' into March than would be the case without these incentives.

With that as a backdrop it is a good stage of the year to examine the state of the market from the available published data from both Realestate.co.nz and REINZ.

I always like to start any property market analysis with sales volumes as this for me is the most important driver. The Median Sales price whilst the headline of all property news articles is largely an outcome of the market, the result of the pressures of the market; but the number of transactions indicates the real health of the market.

Across the whole of the country, sales volumes have been weak now for what is close on 2 years. As the chart below shows, the market year-on-year variance dropped into negative territory nearly 2 years ago in July 2016. 

In the middle of last year after 12 months of declining sales we started to see the rate of decline ease off, and as we reached Christmas, year-on-year sales were pretty close to level with prior year. This was followed in January and February of this new year by very slight rises year-on-year, but then March seems to have hit us and we are back year-on-year to a 9% decline. This is why I made the comment earlier. I had expected that March would have been stronger than it was. For whilst comparing the same influence on the market last year, 9% decline after what has been very low sales volumes is surprising and has that feel of a 'late spring frost' arresting the early new spring growth.

Yet despite this 'snap of frost', it is my view that we are still likely to see sales volumes rising through 2018 to end well ahead of 2017. The most recent 12 month total sales volume to March was exactly 73,000 as reported by REINZ. This level of sales is almost identical to the low point of the last cycle in October 2014 before the upswing in sales that lasted for the next 18 month as sales rose to a 12 month moving total of 94,000.

When examining property sales over a long term perspective, a key influence that has to be factored into the analysis is the core underlying growth in the number of properties across the country. Twenty five years ago back in 1992 when REINZ started collecting and publishing real estate statistics there were just under 1.2 million properties across the country and in that year total sales amounted to 63,000. At the end of 2017 there were an estimated 1.63m properties, an increase of over 435,000 properties, up 36%, whilst total sales in the 2017 calendar year was 73,557, an increase of less than half that of the growth of number of properties. Property sales have gone through around 8 cycles in those 25 years reaching a all time high of 121,777 in April 2004 and an all time low of 53,463 in February 2009.

These highs and lows of the market have represented, a proportion of sales to actual dwellings with a high of 8.4% and a low of 3.5%. Across the past 25 years the average has been 5.7%. Over just the past 10 years the average has been around lower at 4.7% with the current level of the 12 months to March 2018 at 4.5%, certainly below the 10 year average and the longer term average. This further reinforces the view that the market is lower than would be expected.

Complementing the sales component of the market assessment, I am keen to examine the latest data of the clearance rate. This metric I introduced back in January when assessing the year-end data for 2017. It is the measure of sales as a % of listings applied to the latest 12 month moving total.

The picture for clearance rate which as I demonstrated back in January tends to track pretty consistently to median price movement over the years. Looking at the most recent 3 months the clearance rate appears to have arrested its decline and similarly the annual median price movement has stablised at around 5% allowing for the monthly volatility.

Taking all these data points into consideration it looks to me that we have reached the bottom of a cycle of property sales. Given the scale of the current residential dwellings at a level of 1.63m, a sales level of 70,000 is a low point and over a forthcoming period of what maybe 2 to 3 years we will likely see sales rise up again to an expected level of around 90,000. This assumption is predicated on the belief that a sufficient flow of new listings will come onto the market to facilitate this lift in sales, for without this, the latent demand will be unsatisfied and that has the potential to stall the market.