Home Truths: Have first-home buyers cracked the housing market three months on?

They don’t know it, but an Auckland investor’s decision to stop bidding on an affordable house – remember this is 2021 – means young Christchurch teacher Samantha Julian is now a homeowner.

It went to the wire two weeks ago.

“I was up against an Auckland investor bidding over the phone”, says Julian, one of eight aspiring first-home buyers who in July spoke, for the Herald’s Home Truths’ series and at times in excruciating detail, about chasing the dream of homeownership in New Zealand.

“But they stopped bidding right on my limit, so I bought for $560,000 on the hammer.

“It’s a cross-lease, front property, so not the first choice. But it’s in a good area, [and has] three bedrooms and a two-car garage. Getting a three-bed in the $500s is very rare so I’m happy.”

Settlement on the humble Hornby home’s in December, after which the 33-year-old and her mum move in.

While “a little bit frightened” about affording mortgage payments on her own, Julian says she’s feeling “so relieved, shocked, amazed and happy”.

New Zealand’s scorching-hot property market hasn’t got markedly easier so far for those wanting to join the property-owning class, even with the disruption of Auckland’s Covid-19 outbreak and ongoing lockdown, which has spread to neighbouring regions and threatens the entire country.

Real Estate Institute data last week showed the national median house price fell from $850,000 in August to $795,000 in September (6.5 per cent). In Auckland, the median dropped 4.2 per cent, from $1.2 million to $1.15m, over the same period.

Lockdowns affected agents’ ability to do their job, and a rise in real estate activity is expected as restrictions ease further, especially in Auckland, institute chief executive Jen Baird said last week.

Interest rates are also on the way up, with banks signalling more rises as the Reserve Bank lifts the official cash rate. This month’s OCR increase to 0.50 per cent was the first in seven years and aimed at pegging inflation, but equally puts a dampener on the cheap borrowing that fuels housing demand.

The investor market’s also been affected by government measures to suppress demand this year, including the removal of investor tax breaks for purchases of existing housing stock.

But, for now, most of the eight prospective first-home buyers who spoke to the Herald three months ago remain stuck in the rent trap.

Julian’s one of two, most likely three, now on the property ladder.

Five are still hunting and hopeful, albeit some just barely.

One couldn’t be contacted but is understood to have moved her young family out of Auckland and bought in rural Northland.

Julian says her homeownership dream came true after three months of “searching every day”, six disappointments, changing mortgage brokers to increase her home loan pre-approval by $20,000 and working with a buyer’s agent.

She also “lowered my expectations”, letting go of a dream to buy a home with space for a granny flat for her widowed mum.

“I’ve been getting lots of congratulations, and it’s making me more aware of just how fortunate I am, and proud of myself that I was able to buy a home on my own, in this market.

“My mum is going to live with me for a while, which will be amazing, and helpful too. So nice for her to be helping me settle in and to have a place for her too.”

When Julian spoke about her first-home dream in July, she told the Herald it felt like a “far-fetched dream”.

After spending much of her 20s in Australia, she worried her lack of KiwiSaver and inability to access her Australian super had ruined her chance to be a homeowner.

Struggling to get a permanent teaching contract, Julian worked fixed-term teaching jobs and nannied on weeknights and weekends to save a deposit of $120,000 in three years, only to find herself priced out of Wellington’s rising property market.

Seeing Christchurch as both a relatively affordable market and the biggest city for job opportunities she moved south this year, feeling it was her “very last chance” to buy the home she says will provide security not only for herself but her retired mum and single brother.

“My mum has been a single parent, a widow since I was a baby, and she could never afford to buy a home. Neither can my brother, being on his own”, Julian said in July.

“A first home for me is a shared home for the three of us.”

Aucklander Shelley has also snagged the keys to that elusive homeownership dream.

“I am now a homeowner”, she said, when the Herald called last week.

The 49-year-old who, like most of the first-home buyers spoken to, fears the judgment of other Kiwis and asked to be identified only by her first name, is now living in the three-bedroom 1980s Parakai home that will officially be hers in a few weeks after complications with the $700,000 sale delayed settlement

She had to “beg, borrow and steal” to get the last $20,000 for the $105,000 deposit she needed to keep the bank happy, but her mortgage will be the same as her former rent – $2500 a month.

The six months before buying were “hard slog” saving to top up her KiwiSaver withdrawal, buying the “bare minimum” of food, cutting subscriptions such as Netflix and doing everything to look good to the bank.

“Once I bought a pizza because my daughter came around and I thought, ‘Oh no, that’s going to be on my [bank] record’.

“It hasn’t been easy, with one hurdle after another … I’m so happy to be on the property ladder and doing it on my own has given me great satisfaction.”

She’d always been “out of the homeownership loop” after leaving an abusive relationship and struggling to pay the bills while also making sure her daughter didn’t miss out on any opportunities.

With her daughter now in a good career, and a new job boosting her own income to $87,000, Shelley wanted to buy in the North Auckland area to be close to her widowed mum.

Her budget stretched – just – to $700,000 but she’d seen homes not fit for rental even with asking prices of up to $150,000 more, Shelley said in July.

Her new home is on a cross-lease and isn’t in her ideal area, and she was a bit scared in the first few weeks before discovering her neighbours “are nicer than the last place I was renting, in Ōrewa”.

It also “hasn’t really got a kitchen” – only a bench and oven – so she’s bought cupboards.

“But it was within my price limit, so that was it. I was just going to go for anything that was in my price limit, I wasn’t going to be fussy.

“I’m just making do because it’s mine, and that’s more important.”

The plan Is to pay off the mortgage before retirement. If that doesn’t happen, she’ll downsize.

“I mean, it’s not going to be the rosy retirement a lot of people have now where they go on holidays and all that sort of stuff. But at least I’ll have a roof over my head.”

Her advice to other first-home buyers is to have a good savings record and tap into supportive first-home buyer groups online.

“Because nobody helps you. The lawyers won’t help you, they’ll just ask your opinion or to sign something. You’ve got to kind of figure it out by talking to people.

“And you’ll hear people say, ‘You’ll get there too’. I’d get angry when I heard that. But now I own my own house it’s like, ‘Yeah, I know what they mean. You will get there’.”

Harley Neville, an Auckland film/TV freelancer, co-host of The Guy and Harley Podcast and hopeful first-home buyer, believes he’s going to get there.

Disillusionment at high prices, and then the disruption of Covid-19, knocked back Neville and his 22-year-old Christchurch-based brother when they began looking for a Dunedin rental to buy together in February 2020.

But the brothers, who were raised in Dunedin by a single mum on the domestic purposes benefit and have no family money to further boost their $170,000 deposit, will be getting new home loan pre-approval soon, Neville says.

They’re now looking at houses in Christchurch’s Rolleston, which is close to Burnham Military Camp, where Neville’s army sapper (engineer) brother lives.

They don’t have firm long-term plans for their future property, beyond it being a rent-funded investment that will hopefully grow in value, Neville says.

But it’s time to get started.

“I actually emailed my brother the other day with an update of our savings and said to him, ‘When I get out of this lockdown, why don’t we start again with some renewed vigour and actually get it out of the way?’

“Obviously, I worry we’re going to buy and then house prices magically go down but, basically, I think they’re just going to keep going up and we either get on now while we still, maybe, potentially can, or we don’t get on at all.”

Fellow house-hunter Robyn is also looking in Christchurch, but is battling price increases outpacing her ability to save.

The 42-year-old, who is single, has bank pre-approval to spend up to $550,000 – up $50,000 since July – which includes her 20 per cent deposit and accounts for her income of less than $75,000.

“I’ve been looking, going to open homes, many don’t have price indications so when I asked they’d just give a range in the $600s … and a couple in my budget have gone into multi-offers within three or four days of listing.

“A house I really liked, they wouldn’t give any price indication so I just put it up to the maximum amount I could afford. There were 12 other offers and I missed out.”

She’s still looking – but losing hope.

“Is this going to be possible for me? I’m honestly at the point where I don’t know if it is.”

Two Auckland couples spoken to by the Herald in July are also still first-home hopefuls.

Kylie, 39, and her partner, 45, became so frustrated by “greedy vendors” that the couple, who also have a 15-year-old, decided to instead build a new home 45 minutes’ drive from their East Auckland jobs.

But delays in the building sector have now scuppered those plans, Kylie says.

“We were going to build but due to numerous delays in this sector we’ve opted to look at existing properties.”

Supply-chain problems and labour shortages, and high demand, saw prices for building new houses rise 4.5 per cent in the September quarter, and 12 per cent for the year, Stats NZ consumer prices manager Aaron Beck said this week.

The Covid-19 outbreak has also slowed down the house hunt, but they have the help of an agent now, Kylie says.

“[That’s] been an absolute blessing in our search … hopefully we find something soon.”

Across the city, 34-year-old Kayla and her husband, 38, are still renting a year after starting to look for a home in the Stanmore Bay or North Shore areas for their young family.

After four months of more serious looking, and with listings hit by lockdown, they’ve “cooled it a little bit”, Kayla says.

“It’s definitely fatiguing, looking all the time, and being in lockdown with three kids and working, it’s just too hard.”

She still has an eye on the market but is spooked by talk of global markets crashing and interest rates rising.

“There’s just so much noise, I don’t know whether we should be buying now or
waiting.

“Do I wait and see what it’s like in the new year? Will prices slow? I think it’s unsustainable.”

Their July maximum budget’s now up $150,000 to $1.1 million, based on their $180,000 household income, $120,000 deposit and Kayla’s mum offering to be guarantor.

Moving back to Australia, where they lived for almost nine years, is an option, but also a “massive” call after they returned to New Zealand to be closer to family, Kayla says.

Friends have compromised to get into the market and the couple are considering doing the same, cutting their purchase price to $900,000 to get a three-bedroom home that’d be “just a place to sleep, and we do all our living out and about”.

Even compromising, the size of their potential mortgage “scares the bejesus out of me”, Kayla says.

“But it’s either that or continue to pay rent and have that uncertainty all the time, and living in poor conditions. It’s just so disheartening.

“[And yet] it’s totally scary, what people are doing to buy. This is our only chance to buy a house, so if we screw it up, we wouldn’t have anything else to go back on. It’s one chance.”

In Wellington, 43-year-old Tim is also still stuck in the rental trap.

With an income of around $80,000, a deposit of $27,000, a desire to live alone in a place with no body-corporate or earthquake issues and which is close to the city – he doesn’t want to waste time and money, and hurt the environment, by commuting – he’s firmly shut out for now.

Schemes to help “a handful” of people into homeownership didn’t extend to him and for now he’s keeping an eye on buildings that may offer future opportunities, as he’s yet to talk to any bank about lending.

The Government can do more relating to co-housing, tiny homes and other schemes that work overseas, he says.

“Here, people look for a reason not to do something, both civil servants and ministers.”

In the time he’s been watching the market, Tim, who’s single, has seen housing assets going front-page on dating apps such as Tinder.

“People will say in their [profile’s] first sentence, ‘I’m a homeowner’ … or that they want to buy a house, or ‘I’m looking for somebody to buy a house with’.

“Normally you’d need to know someone pretty well before you buy a house with them.”

The Government should legally limit to “about three” the number of properties one person, family or trust can own, he said in July.

This week, Labour and National joined forces behind a radical new housing policy -the Housing Supply Bill – which they say will help address the housing crisis by allowing as many as 105,500 new homes to be built in less than a decade.

It’s an infinitesimal chance, but if he won $10 million his personal housing plan would be to buy 10 homes and sell them at half price to those in need, Tim says.

“Five million is enough for anyone to live on.”

In the meantime, hearing of fellow first-home house hunter Samantha Julian’s success over an Auckland investor in Christchurch cheers him.

The David and Goliath battle’s at the heart of what’s wrong with the housing market in New Zealand, Tim says.

The investor wasn’t doing anything wrong in trying to buy an affordable home in Christchurch, but they weren’t doing anything right either.

“A lot of people do things because they’re allowed to, not because it’s right.”

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