Nerida Conisbee
Nerida Conisbee

INTERVIEW: Moving on from REA as chief economist, Nerida Conisbee will take on the same role with the Ray White Group.

In a chat with The Fifth Estate last week, while on her way back from a symposium the group held in Queensland, Conisbee said a key attraction of the move was the data set the group was building around the residential property market and “the opportunity to build my own team” of perhaps another four people to fully dive into understanding the behaviour of this critical part of the economy.

“One of the challenges with data is there is no shortage, but sometimes it can be poor quality.” What this family owned real estate business offers includes opportunities to “talk to people on the ground”. Especially those in small specific markets.

From her trip to Noosa where the event was held, Conisbee said she found it particularly interesting to talk to local agents reporting “one of the strongest price growth” stories of the past 12 months.

Average prices there had shot up 17.5 per cent to a median price of around $800,000 while the Gold Coast was now 16.6 per cent higher at a median of $763,000.

She says the agents report it’s the “lifestyle buyers coming out of Melbourne in particular,” who she believes are likely to stick around.

Overall though, over the next five years Conisbee thinks demand will start to drift back to the cities as more people are vaccinated and the normal rhythms of life return.

What Covid did was accelerate a move to the fringes already underway. “Geelong was doing incredibly well before, but Covid gave it an extra strong push.”

One of the upshots of the mass move to the country is wage pressures occurring in regional towns with people unable to attract staff without migrant workers or students to call on but this could be short term as well as borders start to open.

For areas not within commuting distances of cities she thinks the prices won’t drop back too much but that the level of interest will stabilise.

Conisbee says the fear of fast rising inflation that would have potentially forced the Reserve Bank to increase its rates probably won’t happen.

Although if pressures tip inflation over the 3 per cent range the RBA may be forced to move. Government debt, she points out, is forecast to reach around $1 trillion by 2025 “so it’s not just households sensitive to interest rate changes”.

For now, as most readers will be acutely aware of, Australia is the third least affordable country in the world but still it’s expected that one or two interest rates will be relatively easily absorbed.

It’s interesting, she says, the cities that are most affordable are those with planning systems that work – that ensure there is enough housing for everyone.

“They build enough housing for everyone and this is why Melbourne is so much more affordable. It has been very good at building, whether house and land or medium density or the high density in the centres – they’ve been building more rapidly than Sydney.”

Sydney of course has a lot more geographic impediments to deal with as well, she adds.

Another thing to note is the high variability between the highest and lowest cost of housing that pushes up the medium in places such as Sydney. “There are affordable pockets of Sydney.”

Home ownership is important for younger people because as prices rise they either pay off the home or enjoy very high equity; as they get older it can be “very problematic” to not own a home for people on fixed income.

As to solutions, given that direct help to home buyers generally contributes to higher prices and that removing tax lurks such as negative gearing is so politically unpalatable, Conisbee says, “I don’t know what the answer to that is.”

For now she thinks the boom is starting to calm down.

On sustainability she says has hasn’t in the past looked at the pricing data reflecting sustainability but that in the new job she will.

Sustainability gets “fed into listing but not in every market. It’s often vendor led and they will consider it to be important.”

It will be interesting to look at what buyers want, generally it’s bedrooms, swimming pools and garage space, but with rising energy costs the likelihood is “it will drive buyers and to look at those aspects more closely. 

“In Queensland, for instance they have very expensive cooling.” 

On the commercial side Conisbee says rents will take a hit from Covid and vacancies will rise but the interesting thing is there is still “so much money wanting to buy commercial property”. A recent survey of Asian investment sentiment put Australia “at the top of the list”. 

Why?

“People will go back to work. Employment growth will combat the effect [of Covid] so on the one hand the money is saying this will be all fine. On the other HSBC is saying it will cut 30 per cent of space.”

So the occupier market is weak but the investors are looking longer term. 

“These are global investors, probably looking at New York and thinking people will return to work quicker than people think.