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May 29, 2024

New Laws Arrive

The state government has introduced its first tranche of tenancy law changes designed to further protect renters in the face of stubbornly low vacancy rates, rising rents and ongoing supply shortages. As national debate about the ‘housing crisis’ rages on, becoming more political by the day, the frustrations of those impacted by housing affordability constraint continues to rise. Thankfully, everyone agrees that the lack of housing supply goes to the heart of the problem of housing affordability, yet there is yet to be substantive, needle-shifting policies from our state or federal governments that has meaningfully focused on this core issue. So far, we’ve seen a series of back-slapping fringe policies that are either promissory or tinker around the edges. there’s no law against being a rude, vindictive narcissist For example, the federal government’s promise of building 1.2 million new affordable homes by 2029 came off the back of protracted negotiations with the Greens over the Housing Australia Future Fund; a political promise that sets a wildly ambitious construction target. Housing approvals over the past five years reached about 925,000 boosted by the HomeBuilder grants of 2020/21. The trajectory for new approvals is troubling for adding supply having fallen back (down 9.5% in December) sharply as construction material costs continue to rise, up 32.5% since 2020. Add to this rising inflation elsewhere in the economy, poor productivity, NIMBYism, high property taxes, planning constraints, lack of building innovation, higher interest rates and falling employment, we’ll miss the 1.2 million home target by miles. Meanwhile, our state government celebrates fringe policies such as the $5,000 landlord incentive for property owners who, after having their ‘extra’ property lay empty for six months, can claim the $5k for putting in a tenant. Our Treasurer reckons this could add an additional 1000 homes to the rental pool. Sorry, but anyone that can afford leave their investment property empty for six months, won’t be swayed by five grand. Other government actions around housing included changes to the Residential Tenancy Laws, two of which came into effect this week. Firstly, there is now a ban on ‘rent bidding’. This effectively means landlords and property agents are banned from encouraging tenants to “pay extra” to secure a rental home. Nor can properties be advertised at a “from” weekly rent. The intention is sound but in response, initial asking rents will rise to account for the competition in the market. Tenants can still offer more than the asking rent if they choose to. The second new law is referred to as the ‘retaliatory rule’ whereby a landlord cannot respond to reasonable requests from a tenant regarding property maintenance and other matters by not renewing the lease, for example. Some tenants can be unreasonable to deal with and there’s no law against being a rude, vindictive narcissist. It will be interesting to see how the new law deals with circumstances like this where the property owner seeks to not renew a lease on the grounds of their tenant being unreasonably difficult. There is no quick fix to the housing crisis, but every effort to add supply to the housing stock in an affordable way must be the priority.

May 10, 2024

More Edge Tinkering

The Cook government is trying to rebalance Western Australia’s rental market. There has been a flurry of affordable housing-related policy announcements recently to address surging rents and low vacancies. REIWA assesses Perth’s vacancy rate at 0.6 percent, a long way from a market parity 3.5 percent. The latest announcement aims to encourage property owners to convert their vacant homes into long-term rentals by offering a one-off $5,000 payment. Sorry to be cynical, but a property owner who can afford to leave their property vacant (Granny / Fonzie flats or vacant rooms are ineligible) for a period of longer than six months, doesn’t need a lazy $5,000 to convince them to lease it. The policy comes off the back of the recent Short Term Rental Accommodation (STRA) Incentive Scheme, which encouraged owners to convert their property from the short to long term market with a $10,000 payment. So far, 150 properties have converted their properties into the long-term market or a minute 0.05 percent of rented properties across WA. In announcing the latest policy, Premier Cook acknowledges the “significant demand for housing” and has committed to “leaving no stone unturned in our work to boost supply of homes.” Responsible Ministers shared the limelight with Treasurer Saffioti suggesting, “This initiative has the potential to bring up to 1,000 properties back onto the rental market.” Commerce Minister Ellery reckoned the STRA Incentive Scheme has been “a success” and Minister Carey (Planning and Housing) reflected on his government “continuing to think outside the box…to boost housing supply.” To give credit where credit is due, at least the government is doing something and, in this market, something is better than nothing. Unsophisticated private investors – ordinary West Australians – supply 27 percent of all homes to tenants, about 264,000 properties. Government supply about 3 percent. In this time of greatest need, with supply of rental homes at severe lows, these recent housing policies that seek to encourage the investor cohort into supplying more homes will barely scratch the surface. Meanwhile, big-ticket items that would significantly move the needle on supply are ignored. Stamp duty - where bracket creep means an investor tax of $27,000 at Perth’s median house price - and land tax rebates are obvious places to start. And why not (even temporarily) repeal the foreign investor tax where these buyers pay $76,000 in state tax when buying a $700,000 property? This group, very sensibly, choose to rent rather than pay the tax, soaking up valuable rental stock. Put simply, governments – supported by the media and tenancy advocates – have been busily whacking investors, whilst simultaneously failing to provide enough rental housing for West Australians as the only possible alternative to the private investor market. WA’s poor market performance in the years 2012-2020, has left our housing market underprepared for the surge in new arrivals and we’re playing catch up. There is time for meaningful reform to encourage investors into the market to add more supply and whilst relatively small cash incentives may tinker around the edges, they won’t make a meaningful impact.

May 3, 2024

Rent Bidding

As recently reported in these pages, the West Australian parliament passed into law changes to the Residential Tenancies Act designed to further protect the interest of tenants. Some of the changes bring WA into line with other states where substantial changes have altered tenant-landlord relationships and, in some cases, have deterred investment and pushed up rents. Many of the changes will be relatively benign, such as rent increases limited to no more than every twelve months (currently it is a minimum of six months). None of the laws encourage investors to further supply rental stock by improving protections for landlords from tenants that breach the lease agreement and / or wilfully damage the property. One of the changes will be to make it illegal for a landlord (or their property manager) to encourage a tenant to offer more rent to secure a lease. Known as ‘rent bidding’, in a tight rental market it is common for tenants to offer more than the advertised rent for a property. It’s important to note that the ban will not prevent a tenant from offering more rent than advertised. In other states, rent bidding is already banned, but the outcome of the ban has failed to afford any additional benefit for tenants. In the current market, most properties receive multiple applications to rent with many tenants prepared to offer more than the asking rent to secure the property. Under the current arrangement, tenants will typically seek guidance from the leasing agent as to what constitutes market rental value and without specifying the details of competing applications, tenants are able to secure a lease by offering a modest amount above the asking rent. With a ban on rent bidding, tenants will be ‘flying blind’. The leasing agent will have to be silent on proffering any advice as to the level of competition, or where the market sees value. What has occurred in other states is tenants are offering substantially more than the asking rent because the leasing manager is unable to guide them where fair market rent might lie. I am told desperate tenants in NSW will offer 20% above asking rent where a 5% increase would have been sufficient. Already, property managers are advertising asking rents with a “From” in front. This makes it more difficult for tenants to determine fair market rent, especially once rental bidding is formally banned. Mostly, landlords are seeking quality tenants at a reasonable rent. Many will choose the best tenant over one offering the highest rent. Property managers have a duty to their landlord to secure the best possible lease outcome for their client and the rent achieved is but one component. Banning rent bidding will do nothing to further the plight of tenants already dealing with a highly competitive, stressful market of limited supply and rising rents. Governments should spend their time thinking about how they can get more rental supply into the market by actively encouraging property investors. Everything else treats the symptom not the cause and rents will continue to rise.

Apr 18, 2024

Rental Reforms Pass

Significant changes to residential tenancy laws passed through parliament this week heralding a strengthening of tenants rights as they relate to residential leases. The following key changes will impact residential tenancies: Tenants will be allowed to keep pets and the property owner will only be able to refuse in certain circumstances. Tenants will be able to make minor modifications to the property without permission from the owner. Tenants may take an owner to court if they can demonstrate the owner has acted with reciprocity against a tenant. Rent increases are limited to once annually. The process of bond disposals can be commenced by either tenant or landlord. Disputes will mostly be heard by the Commissioner of Consumer Protection rather than the Magistrate’s Court. Rent bidding will be banned. Overall, the changes are moderate and align with tenancies laws in other states and territories. Importantly, the changes stop short of prohibiting ‘without grounds terminations’, a silly phrase used to describe circumstances where a tenant requests a further lease term after the end of a fixed term and the landlord refuses without giving a reason. REIWA conducted a survey into this particular element of the tenancy laws with an astonishing 61 percent of the 6,000-odd landlords surveyed saying they’d ‘consider selling’ the property if ‘without grounds terminations’ were prohibited. Given a fixed term lease has a clear end date, neither party should anticipate that an additional lease or reversion to a ‘periodic lease’ is assured. You don’t have to give a reason to end a fixed term agreement in any other circumstance, even a marriage! At a time where supply of rental homes are at crisis point across Australia, new laws that actively undermine the encouragement of supply risks further disincentivizing the main cohort of property investors; unsophisticated, family investors the majority of whom own one additional property other than their home. Given family investors provide 9 in every 10 rentals in WA, we cannot afford to discourage them.

Apr 11, 2024

Rental Market Tightens Further

This week, REIWA reported Perth’s residential rental vacancy rate dropped to a record low of 0.4 percent in March. A balanced market records vacancy rates at around 3.5 percent and in sharp contrast to early 2018 where vacancy rates were at 7.3 percent and over 12,000 properties were advertised for lease on reiwa.com. Today there are 1,963 advertised. Median Perth rents are at $649 per week with properties offered for lease below this figure in higher demand than those above the median. Accordingly, properties advertised at less than $1000 per week are leasing in about two weeks, whereas those at above this figure take about 21 days to rent. Core Logic shows Perth’s rental value is up 14 percent in the twelve months to March 2024, leading the nation amongst capital cities which averaged a 9.6 percent increase. Applied to Perth’s current median rent, a further 14 percent would see Perth rents hit $740 per week this time next year. The core of the problem is the shortage of housing supply at a time when migration levels into WA are rising contemporaneously with deteriorating construction approvals for new homes. Apartment approvals are at decade low levels falling to around 375-unit approvals last month against our 10-year average of about 725 units. Thankfully, investors are relatively active with 36 percent of mortgage demand in Western Australia coming from investors. This is up from the decade average of 24 percent and just 15 percent in 2019. The upside to this renewed investor enthusiasm is more rental stock coming into the market adding to supply, with the downside for first home buyers being investors buying stock that might otherwise have gone to them, which ultimately push up house prices. And prices are rising most in typical first home buyer regions. Remarkably, 8 of the top 10 local government regions across Australia for annual price growth are in Perth with the affordable regions of Armadale, Gosnells, Rockingham and Kwinana the top four performers up between 25.8 percent and 28.6 percent. Serpentine – Jarrahdale, Wanneroo, Cockburn and Mandurah all made the top ten up around 23 percent. In a balanced market, as house prices moderately rise, rents typically ease as first home buyers leave the rental market and enter home ownership. The opposite applies when interest rates rise and home prices abate, demand for rentals rise, pushing up rents. Today’s market is different. Perth is experiencing a renaissance of sorts after a prolonged period of negative or negligible growth from 2009 to 2019. During this decade, under-investment locally has caught us off guard with the speed of market recovery leaving us hopelessly short on supply during a time where construction costs remain a deterrent against meaningful and rapid increases in housing stock.

Feb 29, 2024

Sorry, Disconnected

Sometimes, governments make decisions that have unintended consequences that impact the practical ways certain industries work. Canberra’s latest effort to over-regulate comes in the form of changes to the Fair Work Act that formalise an employee’s ‘right to disconnect’. The changes effectively mean an employee may refuse to monitor, read or respond to contact from an employer outside of the employee’s normal working hours. As an employer, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for an employee to ignore my phone call after hours, and unless it was a serious emergency, I wouldn’t be calling them after hours anyway. But, do we really need to make a law for it? For the real estate industry, the implications could be significant. The business of real estate – sales or property management – doesn’t happen during usual business hours. The laws extend to an employee (sales representative or property manager) refusing to monitor, read or respond to contact from a third party if the contact relates to their work. This includes contact from vendors, tenants, buyers and lessors. The obvious issues for national companies operating in Western Australia have been neatly overlooked by east coasters with the 3-hour time difference in summer could mean an effective workday starting in midday in Melbourne and Sydney and ending here two hours later. The changes could result in lost business if employees refuse to take urgent calls on a critical matter, such as a live sale negotiation. And what about a matter concerning safety at a property where property or person is at risk where a worker is required to manage such emergencies? The new laws are set to become law in July this year. After which, a tenant, needing assistance to get into their home after losing their keys at 6 pm can expect no reply from their property manager. A vendor, - in theory - wanting to know how Saturday’s home open went, can’t demand a response from their sales agent until Monday morning. As a result, many real estate employees will ignore the new laws and carry on providing service to their clients, tenants and buyers outside normal working hours. It won’t be until something goes wrong with the employer / employee relationship that challenges might arise. Employers could find themselves in strife with the Fair Work Commission if a disgruntled employee claims they were expected to work outside normal business hours without the right to disconnect. Employees working from home further muddies the water given these arrangements enable a degree of flexibility that transcends normal work hours anyway. Time will tell what impacts come from these laws that seem to be an answer to a question no one ever really asked.

Feb 22, 2024

Who’s to Blame?

Housing affordability is one of the most significant challenges of the modern era. Both house prices and rents are at record highs in Perth and across much of the nation with Perth’s median house and rent prices at around $600,000 and $600 per week respectively and growing faster than any other major Australian capital. We understand that the reason for these rises is down to simple economics, higher demand and short supply means prices and rents rise. Governments have done a spectacular job at shifting blame away from their own housing policy failures to investors, banks, real estate agents, local councils and developers. Yet, each of these sectors play a pivotal role in delivering the existing housing stock. Governments, on the other hand, through their taxation and other policies actively undermine housing supply. Property investors, mostly families that own a single investment property, provide 90 percent of all residential rental homes across Australia, housing millions of tenants. They obtain a moderate benefit by claiming some of the expenses stemming from that investment against their taxable income via negative gearing. However, once positively geared, investors pay tax on the property’s income and pay Capital Gains Tax if they make a profit upon selling. Banks, whilst not the most popular corporate citizens, provide the funding for property through mortgages. Banks also provide the funding for developers. Us real estate agents provide the services that help investors navigate residential tenancy laws, help people into home ownership and enable property transactions. Local councils often stymie property developments, especially increased density but they also adapt their planning laws over time, enhancing our urban environments. Developers provide housing on mass, adding density to areas where people aspire to live, work and recreate. Part of the reason property values are rising is the cost of construction, both labour and materials, has risen by around 40 percent in 3 years with end property values for finished product not at levels sufficient to support the viability of the project. Developers work to a margin and if the project fails the feasibility test, it doesn’t get built. That’s why new emerging density areas such as those around the new Metronet hubs will take several years to be developed; the cost of delivering the project is higher than the combined value of the housing produced. These cost constraints are not limited to construction costs. Land tax, holding costs, public art levies, developer levies, rates, headworks fees and stamp duty are additional cost burdens representing around 25 percent of the total development costs. This is where government ought to step in. If they were serious about housing supply, government would support the groups that provide the housing. Instead, state and federal governments either fail to provide the housing themselves (public housing waiting lists are at record highs) or set policies (stamp duty, tenancy law changes and land tax for example) that actively discourage additional housing supply. If it isn’t government, who is to blame for the housing crisis?

Feb 15, 2024

10 Ways to Fix Rental Crisis

It is widely recognised that insufficient supply of housing is the main cause of rising rents. It’s a simple supply and demand equation; low supply plus high demand equals higher rents. Astonishingly, the main supplier of the rental homes - family investors – are mostly ignored by governments and are actively vilified by the Greens. Policies that disincentivise the suppliers of rental homes, such as rent caps or rent freezes, end up diminishing the supply and rents continue to rise. With changes to Stage 3 tax cuts heading through parliament, debate around negative gearing and capital gains tax policy settings has been re-kindled with speculation that Labor will go back on another election policy promise and dust off policies they took to the 2016 & 2019 elections. This would be a very bad idea.  In the absence of an alternate plan to deliver affordable rental homes, private unsophisticated investors remain the answer to supply and policy changes that turn them away would make rental affordability far worse. Here’s a practical ten-point plan to help tenants: Coordinate State and Territory bond agencies to track data on tenancy numbers and tenures. Monitor rental pain points, particularly tenancies not professionally managed. Develop a cohesive national industry-government program of awareness materials for renters. Develop incentives for vacant properties and short stay rentals to bring them back to long-term rentals. Commit to long term stamp duty reform; and offer immediate stamp duty waivers for purchases of rental properties in areas of high need. Commission an immediate occupancy audit across Government owned and funded housing. Develop a feasibility study for re-purposing non-residential real estate into residential housing. Examine options for non-conventional rapid build homes in high areas of economic growth and housing need. Implement the National Cabinet target to build 1.2 million homes by 2030 and have performance mechanisms that hold governments and industry accountable to achieve this. Keep current tax settings for negative gearing and capital gains tax.