(Image: Private Media)

House prices have been rising outrageously in recent times. Has this rise put the Australian dream out of reach? It’s not so simple a question, because interest rates have been really low too. High prices and low repayments might be an okay deal for some people, while less so for others. What’s happening to home ownership?

This is a question we’ve had to dance around with partial information, assumptions and extrapolations, but with the initial release from the 2021 census, Australia has a moment where fresh, authoritative data answers the question. It is not what you might expect. 

Let’s look at the big picture. In 2016 when the last census was run, 64.7% of households owned their home. In 2021, the share is 65.9%. That’s a big jump in home owners. (I’m one of them. I managed to buy at the absolute apex of the market in 2021!)

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It’s worth remembering that in 2017-18 house prices fell, and they did again in early 2020. After a period of repression, first-home buyers let loose and got into the market, while investors, facing tougher borrowing rules and higher interest rates, fell away.

But the story is more nuanced than this. The story I’ve just told above may or may not ring true to you, depending on where in the country you are. Local conditions can vary significantly from the aggregate. City by city, suburb by suburb, the rate of home ownership can be heading in very different directions. 

Let’s glance at Melbourne, for starters. The two maps below tell a story of a city bifurcated. 

In the industrial south-east, the north and the south-west, ownership is falling (shown in red, at left). In the leafy outer east, the north-west and on the Mornington Peninsula, ownership is rising (shown in blue). 

That’s not the only difference we can find in Australia. As the next chart shows, the country has more homeowners than the city in most states; Sydney is a big renters’ town; and in Brisbane, home ownership is receding.

The type of suburbs where home ownership is rising includes some lovely places to live, as the next chart shows. Again 2016 is a red point and 2021 is a dark bar. The pandemic might have sent people to the regions, but some inner-city areas are turning into ownership hotspots.

What is ownership, really?

If the bank owns 90% of your house, can you really say you own it?

This is the hidden part of the ownership iceberg. Most owners owe money on their home. It depends a huge amount on where you live. Darwin and Canberra are Australia’s mortgage capitals, it turns out, while people in rural South Australia have got the bank off their back. Sydney has a higher share of homes paid off than Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth, but as the next chart shows, that lead is slipping, with an increase in Sydneysiders who still owe something on their home. 

In Sydney and the ACT, while more people class themselves as homeowners in 2021, they own less of what they live in in 2021 than in 2016. But for other parts of the country, a lot more people have hit that glorious moment when they send the last payment to the bank. 

That’s the real home ownership dream — and slightly more Aussies are living it now than in 2016.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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