If you want to know what is going on in the property market don’t talk to an estate agent. The best leading indicator of the market is Mover Mark — the king of furniture movers. A conversation with a lad in a big white van stuffed to the gills with other people’s possessions is by far the most instructive steer you will get on the property market.
Typically, these days the Irish lad is a subcontractor and the fellas doing the heavy lifting are Brazilian “students”. The Brazilians seem to have cornered the lifting end of the movers’ market. But Mover Mark is the man who can tell you the real story.
In the past three months, according to Mover Mark, his prices have increased as demand has also increased dramatically. You can see this for yourself on moving sites. People are on the move and rather than doing it themselves, they are hiring lads to do it for them.
As result of a few of these conversations and taking into account how the economy is performing, it looks like 2017 could be the year that Dublin house prices begin to rise again, particularly in the more upmarket areas that, contrary to popular belief, have been in the doldrums for the past year.
In today’s excellent supplement we capture a market recovering strongly in urban centres outside Dublin, but not in the capital itself.
The key to understanding where the housing market goes next is not only what happens to new-builds, but also what is happening to the existing stock of houses.
This is because the existing stock is (a) much bigger and (b) should reflect demographics.
As people get older and their incomes rise, there is a tendency to sell their starter homes to the next generation of new families and move upmarket into houses sold by empty nesters trading down.
This is what should happen in a healthy market and was the case in Ireland up until recently.
However, it is difficult to overstate two demographic factors that have changed the smooth operation of the housing market.
The first massive change is that the first-time buyers of the 2000s are still in significant negative equity and they can’t afford to move at all. As long as there is negative equity, people can’t trade up without taking a massive hit.
This is why home improvement is going through a massive growth spurt as evidenced by the traffic to IKEA.
The second factor is that kids are not leaving the nest in the way they used to, largely because of (a) the cost of accommodation and (b) the fact that for the first time ever (possibly) Irish parents are allowing their kids to sleep with their partners at home. Once you can sleep with your girlfriend at home, get your washing done and have beer money you’d have otherwise coughed up on rent, why the hell would you move out?
Adult children are postponing moving out because they’ve no traditional reason to do so! After all, be honest, why did you really move out at 21? These days, tens of thousands don’t move out until they have their own kids.
The massive move out of Irish kids in their early 20s, which was a feature of my generation, isn’t happening. Therefore, trading down isn’t happening in the same way as it used to.
So the market is stuck.
The first-time buyers of the first decade of the century can’t trade up and the 1980s parents, who should be trading down, are staying put because their kids are now shacking up at home right under their noses.
That was the status quo from 2008 to now. However, it is changing because of population dynamics. The population of Irish kids in their 20s is actually falling. There are many more thirtysomethings in Ireland than twentysomethings.
This is due to the collapse in the birth-rate in the 1980s and 1990s. The thirtysomethings are having kids later now but they are having them; and now they are moving out to nest.
So even parents who have replaced Mass with making little Sophie’s breakfast on a Sunday morning, will find that there are just fewer friends staying over at weekends. Irish family sizes in the 1980s shrunk dramatically and now these smaller families are moving out and they are allowing their parents to trade down.
This happens slowly because demographic changes happen slowly, but we can see evidence of it starting. These are the real fundamentals of the property market and this explains why there has been an uptick in prices in the commuter counties outside the capital.
These places are where the young couples are buying.
The next phase of this familial/demographic trend will be more mature houses coming on stream in Dublin.
Now also think about the first-time buyers of the 2000s. As house prices rise in the commuter belt, they are the ones who are gaining. As their balance sheets recover, they will start to sell because they will no longer be in negative equity.
So they are in the position to bid for the 1980s homes in Dublin. These are the very homes that the people who want to trade down will want to sell. So what is likely to happen?
Price expectations in established areas will change in the coming months and that change will be upwards.
When there is an expectation that prices are going to go up, it is understandable that the people who own the land will wait for prices to go ever higher, thus squeezing potential buyers. It is also understandable that potential buyers will panic when they see prices rising and bring forward their demand so they won’t be left behind.
What do you think happens to supply?
Traditional economics suggests that when the price rises the supply will rise, but is this what actually happens in real life? If owners of land and houses believe that prices are going to rise, wouldn’t they be mad to sell now when they can make more money by delaying? So supply doesn’t rise when price expectations rise, it actually falls.
Only a change in demographics can change this psychological dynamic. The change in demographics is here. So the market for mature homes in Dublin will become more liquid as parents with now empty nests sell. The first-time buyers who have recovered from negative equity will buy and prices will rise.
At least that’s what Mover Mark told me and I’ll take his “on the ground” view over any top down analysis anytime.