Between 2001 and 2010 roughly 1.7 million Australians dropped out of home ownership and shifted back to renting. More than one-third did not return by 2010. These statistics, from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, reflect increasingly insecure jobs, the prevalence of marital breakdown and lone person households, widening income inequalities and the high levels of debt accompanying spiralling real house prices.
Rather than climbing a ladder of housing opportunity that heads in an upward direction only, a growing number of Australians are precariously positioned on the edges of home ownership. We can think of the edges of ownership as a permeable, contested border zone between owning and renting, where households juggle their savings, spending and debt as they attempt to retain a foothold on the housing ladder.
And according to new research comparing Australia with the UK, policy settings play an important role in determining who can and can’t manage to stay in the home ownership game.
The research used three panel surveys – the HILDA survey, the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and its successor Understanding Society. We tracked the ownership experience of 1,907 Australian and 674 British individuals that began periods of home ownership between 2002 and 2010 (a period that covers the enormous disruption caused by the global financial crisis). In each year we have recorded their tenure status.
The figure below shows the proportion of people exiting ownership year on year as a spell of ownership lengthens (the maximum spell length in this study being 8 years). For example, 8% of those Australians that had managed to sustain three consecutive years of ownership shifted into the rental sector in the following year. In contrast, 6% of British home owners transitioned into rental housing after three successive years of ownership.
Despite the turbulent British housing market conditions, and a more serious economic recession following the global financial crisis, Australians’ experiences of home ownership appear more precarious. In fact, in all but one year the exit rate is higher in Australia. For a randomly selected Australian moving into home ownership between 2002 and 2010 the chances of “surviving” as a home owner beyond seven years are only 59%. The chances of “survival” are somewhat higher at 68% in the UK. The edges of ownership appear more permeable in Australia.
Exit rate Australia and UK, 2002–2010
For a minority of individuals in the surveys, labour market mobility might be a factor encouraging a temporary shift out of ownership, as people relocate to take advantage of job opportunities. However, it is clear from the data that the majority of moves out of home ownership are related to financial stress. For example, 15% of those Australians leaving home ownership reported difficulties in paying utility bills in one or more years before exit, while only 7% of those with enduring ownership spells reported such difficulties. 9% of departing Australians fell behind on their mortgages, but only 2% of those with enduring ownership spells testified to such difficulties. Similar patterns are revealed in the British data.
This is no surprise. What is striking is that financial stress is more likely to cause a loss of home ownership status in Australia than it is in Britain - a puzzling feature of the findings which cannot be explained by differences in the personal characteristics of Australian and British members of the panels. If, for instance, ownership reached further down the Australian income distribution we might expect more insecure housing experiences among Australian home buyers. But controlling for these possible differences does not explain our results.
Why is Australia different?
There are instead signals in the data which suggest institutional differences across the two countries are at play. There are two factors that could disproportionately draw marginal Australian owners into the rented sector, while propping up the ownership ideals of their British counterparts.
First, and most obviously, the rental sectors of the two countries are quite different, and appear to have a different function at the edges of ownership. The higher likelihood of exit from ownership in Australia may reflect the role of the larger unregulated Australian private rental sector in “oiling the wheels” between renting and ownership. The size, geography and diversity of the Australian private rented sector make it relatively easy for households to adjust housing costs to income by moving before mortgage stress becomes excessive.
Arguably, therefore, renting performs a risk management role, offering temporary, relatively easily accessible, refuge for those on the edges of home ownership. From this perspective, the earlier exit of Australian households who experience financial stress may be seen as the product, in part, of a well-functioning housing system in which the rented sector offers a general safety net. This does occur in the UK, but to a much more limited extent, via a small social rented sector which offers a ‘soft landing’ for households with some very specific (largely health-related) housing needs.
Second, however, there are differences in the two countries’ social security systems. Historically, British home owners with particular financial needs (such as the loss of all earned income) have been eligible for what is now known as support for mortgage interest (SMI). This may postpone or prevent the need to sell up. There is no such safety net for mortgagors in Australia.
Whether, in the long run, either institutional “solution”(growing the rental sector or subsidising mortgagors at risk of arrears) is satisfactory is a topic for policy makers to discuss.
Other options include shared ownership and equity share, which, if provided at scale could offer an escape valve for financially stretched home owners, perhaps improving on the diversity offered by the Australian private rental sector.
On the other hand, if households in either country have the need or appetite to swap the costs of owning for those of renting or shared ownership regularly or routinely, then it must be time to consider the financial instruments that might enable them to do so without incurring the massive transactions costs, and domestic upheaval, of selling up and moving into a rental property.