House prices bouncing back? Don't hold your breath

Greg Jericho
Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

The latest residential property price figures released by the Bureau of Statistics this week show that in the first three months of this year, for the first time since March 2011, residential prices fell in every Australian capital city.

It highlights that while the general sense is that things are now starting to improve in the housing market, it will take some time to translate that into increased house prices.

The first three months of this year were awful for the housing market. Every capital city saw prices fall – from 3.9% in Sydney to 0.2% in Adelaide:

Related: We have reached the bottom of the housing market but any rebound will be slow to come | Greg Jericho

The falls in Sydney are easily the biggest – prices in March were nearly 13% below the peak of June 2017, but the markets in all capital cities reflect the absence of demand in the economy and the stagnant real wages growth.

The 10.3% and 9% annual price falls in Sydney and Melbourne are the biggest falls in those cities since the ABS began compiling the residential price index in 2003, and only Adelaide and Hobart had residential prices in the March quarter of this year that were above those of 12 months ago:

These figures do somewhat suggest I was wrong to argue as I did last week that the bottom of the housing market looks to have been reached.

But these figures are relatively old compared to the more forward-looking housing finance data.

As it is, the general falling house prices were to be expected given where housing finance was in the last half of last year:

Given the slump in the number of mortgages taken out in the last half of last year, we should also expect the June quarter figures will show an even bigger fall in the average capital city price of 7.4% recorded in March.

But when we look at the quarterly growth of housing finance and house prices, the figures do suggest that a corner has been turned:

We should still expect the June quarter figures to show a bigger fall in prices than the 3% drop recorded in March, although things should then start to improve.

At first the falls will get smaller, and maybe late this year or early next year we should see price increases.

As it is, median house prices in Sydney have fallen from the absurd levels they reached in 2017 – when the median price was more than $1m – to now back to early 2016 levels.

But in some other cities (where admittedly the price is much below that of Sydney) prices still remain above where they were two years ago:

The paths of the housing market in each city have taken somewhat different paths since the RBA began cutting rates at the end of 2011.

Sydney and Melbourne took off well ahead of everywhere else and have since seen the biggest falls. Cities such as Adelaide, Brisbane and Hobart continued to see prices increase while the two biggest cities began to record falls:

But one similarity across all cities except Hobart has been that the price boom has been overwhelmingly for houses rather than apartments and flats.

Melbourne was the most extreme case. Whereas house and apartment prices generally rose and fell in synch, from early 2014 house price went absolutely mad:

This is reflected elsewhere in the country. Even in Perth and Darwin, where residential prices fell due to the end of the employment phase of the mining boom, house prices fell by less than apartment prices:

The residential property price index provides yet more evidence of the weakness in the economy. The drop in house prices in Sydney and Melbourne has been a necessary deflating of a bubble that was in danger of bursting. But even other cities that recorded much slower price growth are now facing the reality that demand for buying houses at ever-increasing prices cannot last in an economy with weak household income growth.

It is likely that house prices will rebound at some stage in the next year, but even with a cut in interest rates, there is unlikely to be another boom in prices unless households begin to see their living standards increase markedly.

• Greg Jericho is a Guardian Australia columnist