2016 saw a number of important policy shifts in relation to property in Ireland, particularly in the final few months of the year. The first was creation of a Cabinet-level Minister for Housing, a sign that – with the change of government – the severe shortage of housing was finally being taken seriously by those in power.
The second substantive change was the long announcement, from about mid-summer until the Budget, of “help” for first-time buyers of newly built homes in the form of a tax rebate. This kicks off in earnest with the new year and is likely to combine with the third change. This was the revision of the Central Bank’s mortgage rules, which came through in November. These revisions mean first-time buyers no longer require a deposit larger than 10%, even if they borrow more than €220,000.
Combined, these two measures create something of a two-tier market. Take two otherwise identical families, on the same household income and with two young children. Their only difference is that one rents the two-bedroom apartment they live in currently, while the other owns it.
Both families are looking to buy a newly built family home in the Greater Dublin Area, at a cost of €400,000. The family that own their apartment will need to produce a deposit of €80,000 (20%), while the family that rent their apartment will – once the tax rebate is factored in – need a deposit of just €20,000 or 5%.
In terms of how this will affect the market, both the rebate and the change to Central Bank rules will have the effect of further stimulating demand and thus pushing up prices. In a way, they are complementary measures. The tax rebate will have the biggest effect on cheaper new homes (those costing between €200,000 and €400,000), while the rule change will have a bigger effect on more expensive homes, including second-hand ones.
Either way, the expectation for the year coming is for a return to house price inflation in Dublin after something of a two-year pause, with average prices in the capital increasing by just 4% between early 2015 and late 2016.
Increases of at least 5% and probably closer to 10% will also be expected in the rest of the country, as strong demand interacts with a lack of supply. The country needs at least 40,000 new homes a year – and probably closer to 50,000 once obsolescence and immigration are factored in. But the current hope is to get construction of 25,000 new homes by 2021.
There is an excessive focus on the “starter home”, however. In fact, when you look at Ireland’s demographic structure, there are close to enough family homes in the country to cater for our families. What Ireland lacks – more than any other high-income country – is apartments.
This shortfall is unlikely to be addressed in the coming year, however, as the cost of building apartments is prohibitive, compared to average incomes. The break-even monthly rent for a two-bed apartment – even with free land – is roughly €1,600 but in most parts of the country, a two-bed rents for less than half this.
So, while there will be a fuss about the vacant site registers (and in time the vacant site levy), until the hard costs of construction have been dealt with, expect little improvement in the chronic lack of accommodation for one- and two-person households. Government Ministers lodging complaints against developments in one of the small number of areas where apartments are viable certainly doesn’t help.
One area that has recovered somewhat in recent years and is likely to continue to strengthen in 2017 is purpose-built student accommodation. Ireland is in the middle of a long higher-education boom. This appears to have been missed by the Higher Education Authority: a 2015 report of theirs predicted student numbers to rise from 168,000 to 193,000 in the decade to 2024. Instead, there are likely to be 193,000 students as early as this September, seven years ahead of schedule!
In that context, all new purpose-built student accommodation is welcome, even if it will only really cater for better-off students. The reason this is the case is the same problem that bedevils residential construction in Ireland currently: how expensive it is to build. Looking at the pipeline of student accommodation, it is likely that this will be only just enough to meet new demand and will do little to take existing students out of the general private rented sector.
So 2017 is likely to be another year of very strong demand for all types of residential property: sales, rental, new, second-hand, urban, rural, houses, apartments, student living and assisted living. It is also likely to be yet another year of weak supply in all these segments.
Solving this would mean dramatically reducing the cost of building a home – by something like 35%. Even if the causes of this cost gap are identified, it is likely to take a year to bring costs down and then a further two years before these lower costs translate into anything like the level of construction the country needs.
So don’t be surprised if there’s a similar-sounding piece this time next year!
This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on January 8th, 2017.