The South African housing market has been somewhat buoyant. The question is: Will it remain so

The South African housing market has been somewhat buoyant. The question is: Will it remain so

Expectations are that the SARB will leave interest rates unchanged at the MPC meeting on 26th March. This expectation follows on the heel of Governor Yelland’s indication that the United States Federal Reserve will not be raising interest rates soon in that country as inflation is very low ( less than 1%), and meaningful job recovery is still sought in the US economy. This news will no doubt help retain our trend.

According to FNB, the final quarter of 2014 saw South Africa’s Household Sector continuing to lower its vulnerability to debt-service cost “shocks”.

While still highly indebted and highly at risk, in 4th quarter 2014 South Africa’s Household Sector continued to gradually lower its vulnerability to any unwanted interest rate hiking surprises or economic shocks, by further lowering its Debt-to-Disposable Income Ratio. According to the South African Reserve Bank, a further decline in the Household Debt-to-Disposable Income Ratio, from a previous quarter’s revised 78.1% to 77.6% in the 4th Quarter of 2014. This brings the cumulative decline in the ratio since the early-2008 peak to 11.2 percentage points, which is significant.

All of this means that the Household Sector is moderately better positioned to weather an interest rate hiking “storm” this time around compared with 2008/9, due to its overall level of indebtedness being considerably lower these days compared to that period.

Another angle to take in answering the question is to look at buyers who are acquiring Buy-to-Let investments. The 1st quarter 2015 FNB Estate Agent Survey pointed to no further increase in the significance of buy-to-let buying in the market compared with the previous quarter. By this FNB means that, as a percentage of total home buying, buy-to-let purchases are estimated by estate agents who responded to the survey to have remained unchanged on the previous quarter at 9%, the 3rd successive quarter of this estimated percentage.

FNB believes this percentage trend is a healthy one, reflecting that the property market is not running away with itself as it did prior to 2008’s sub-Prime crisis. The percentage remains mediocre in comparison to the estimated 25% back in the boom times of early-2004. Household Sector Real Disposable Income (simply, what we put in our pockets) growth remains constrained by sustained weak economic growth for the foreseeable future, while Government taxes, fuel levies and statutory costs, like electricity, continue to rise.

In addition, the rental market’s performance in recent years has remained lacklustre. At low interest rates, people would rather try to buy their own property. In the Western Cape though, the value for money by renting often exceeds what similar payments per month on a bond could buy. In other words, rental returns are low compared with Gauteng.

Nevertheless, a stable buy-to-let percentage of total home buying should imply a gradual rise in the volumes of buy-to-let purchases, because we have seen gradually rising overall transaction volumes in the residential market in recent years.

Looking at 1st time homebuyers, the 1st Quarter 2015 FNB Estate Agent Survey once again returned a strong estimate of 1st time buying levels expressed as a percentage of total home buying, although a little down off the peak percentage of a few quarters ago. FNB believes that the mild decline may just point to a slow decline in home affordability that has appeared recently. Obviously, this would deteriorate quicker if interest rates were to rise.

According to the sample of agents FNB surveyed, 1st time buyers were estimated to be 25% of total home buyers. This is slightly lower than the 28% high of the 2nd quarter of 2014, and the percentage has now been lower than last year’s high point for 3 consecutive quarters, causing the smoothed trend line to point slightly downward. As before, FNB believes that the mild decline may just point to a slow decline in home affordability.

FNB has two very interesting indicators. FNB’s Home Affordability measures include the Average House Price/Average Labour Remuneration Ratio, as well as the 100% Instalment on an Average Home Loan/Average Labour Remuneration Ratio. In simple terms, these two indicators measure how affordable it would be for the man-in-the-street to buy a house and make the payments on the bond. These indicators started to rise in 2014 after prior years of decline because of the net result of house price inflation exceeding wage growth, and of course the minor interest rate hikes last year.

It would appear, too, that an increasing portion of 1st time buyers are indeed concerned about house price increases and affordability challenges, according to FNB. “Buyer Panic” refers to a state of mind where aspirant 1st time residential market entrants begin to fear that if they don’t buy a home quickly, the price levels will rise to levels where property becomes unaffordable for them. This can cause “inappropriately high” levels of 1st time buyers over-extending themselves financially as they attempt to get a foot in the property market “before it is too late”. This, in turn, can cause market “price bubbles”. FNB considers the market still appears to be far from this point but buyer panic must always be a concern where it exists.

So back to the question, Will the South African home market remain somewhat buoyant? It would appear from the above that the market is better than recent years but not over-heated or unreasonable in any of the residential property sectors. So, we will probably retain current growth levels for the foreseeable future.

A closing comment. Interest rates may not be the key determinant of home buying. There is a large dose of “Confidence” that comes into play. Think of it this way, when you buy a house you want to know it’s for keeps and your work circumstances are stable and certain. Fear of job loss, and a sense of uncertainty about the future could keep you renting.

Jack Trevena
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