Fears mount over health of Australia's housing market

A home for auction in Australia The inability to pay mortgages has seen many home being repossessed and auctioned off

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On the main shopping strip in the multicultural suburb of Auburn, 12 miles from the Sydney Opera House, the mood is as gloomy as the dismal start to the southern summer.

This blue-collar district, where modest houses sit alongside freshly-minted apartments, is one of the areas where Australia's very own property crunch is playing out.

Recent figures from the Supreme Court show that in New South Wales, which has Sydney as its capital and is Australia's most populous state, the number of people having their homes repossessed by banks has risen by 22.5% this year.

A report by insurance provider Genworth does not give detailed figures for arrears but states that "no previous survey has seen mortgage stress levels hit 25%, not even during the depths" of the global financial crisis.

On the streets of Auburn, the increase in the numbers and percentages is much easier to gauge.

"I used to have a house before," explains Brendan Timmins, who works in Auburn. "But it was no good, I couldn't afford it, so I lost it".

"People shouldn't go too far into debt. They are trying to get the Australian dream but it is out of reach for a lot of people," he adds.

Mr Timmins goes on to explain that he sold his house as his debts got him "into a fair amount of trouble and I'm not going there again".

'Entrenched problem'

Start Quote

Housing stress is something we have seen become really severe over the last decade in particular as house prices have risen”

End Quote Sarah Toohey Australians for Affordable Housing

For many observers of Australia's housing market and economy, the increase in the repossession rate highlighted by the New South Wales Supreme Court is a worrying development.

Not least because Australia's housing market has enjoyed near-perfect conditions for much of the past decade, with increasing wages helping fuel significant price gains.

Australians for Affordable Housing estimates that over the past decade house prices across the country have increased by 147%, while incomes have risen by only 57% during the same period.

Community groups warn that financial strain has become deeply embedded in Australia's housing market.

For them the worry is that should Australia's economy slow as a result of weaker global conditions, then more households may end up struggling to repay their mortgages.

"This is an entrenched problem," says Sarah Toohey, the campaign manager for Australians for Affordable Housing, which represents more than 60 community and housing organisations.

"Housing stress is something we have seen become really severe over the last decade in particular as house prices have risen."

Out of reach?

House buyers have been faced with a stark choice of either borrowing increasing amounts of cash or resigning themselves to not getting on the housing ladder at all.

"Honestly, it is out of control, man," says Mustapha, 28, a taxi driver in Auburn who lives with his parents.

"I'm a good 15 to 20 years away from owning my own home. It is not something that is realistic anymore.

"Australia used to be the 'lucky country'. Now it is the 'expensive country'."

Reserve Bank of Australia The recent rate cuts by Australia's central bank are likely to ease some pressure from consumers

University graduate Laura Smith-Kahn feels the same frustration.

"Owning a house is a fairly distant dream," she explains. "Most of the time you feel like you are just working to pay your rent, living from day-to-day, week-to-week. It is very hard to save any money".

However, struggling households and house-buying hopefuls were given some pre-Christmas cheer by the Reserve Bank.

It is attempting to inject more vigour into ailing sectors of the Australian economy and in December reduced interest rates for the second month in a row to 4.25%.

The worry is that despite a bounce back in the mining and construction sectors, Australia's economy and consumers may be hurt by the continuing eurozone debt problems, coupled with a slowdown in China and a nascent but fragile recovery in the US.

"The rate cut in November and the one just announced is certainly going to go a long way to help consumers feel more confident about the future," Ellie Comerford, the chief executive of Genworth, says.

Helping hand

Banks too are trying to do their bit to help those buckling under the weight of a mortgage.

In an unprecedented move they have launched a new website, www.doingittough.info, to give hardship advice to homeowners struggling to make their repayments.

"Even though Australia's economy is doing well, lots of Australians are doing it tough. For some of us, it's getting harder and harder to make ends meet," says the website.

Paul Clitheroe, the chairman of the Australian government's Financial Literacy Board, says that lenders are obliged to help those who are financially stressed.

"Banks, credit unions and building societies are now required to have a hardship area that deals with people in genuine hardship," Mr Clitheroe explains.

"What the banks may do is reduce your interest repayments, they may freeze interest for a while but it is in the banks interests to let consumers stay on top of their debt."

At present, many of the problems are limited to certain areas of Australia's main cities, and larger country towns including Dubbo and Orange in New South Wales.

Analysts say that the key going forward will be ensuring that both homeowners and borrowers can find a way of ensuring that neither one of them ends up on the wrong end of the housing deal.

Especially as Australia is a country where many still strive for a place of their own and homeownership is woven into the national fabric.

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