Sydney home prices surging at 5 times wages add to bubble woes

SYDNEY (Bloomberg) - Don't count on a wage increase putting that Sydney home within reach.

Home prices in Australia's biggest city have surged more than five times faster than wages in each of the past two years, adding to fears of a housing bubble.

Wages in New South Wales state, where 60 per cent of the population resides in Sydney, climbed 2.5 per cent in 2013 and 2.4 per cent in 2014, compared to gains of 12.4 per cent and 14.5 per cent respectively for homes in the nation's most populous city and financial hub, according to government and CoreLogic Inc. data compiled by Bloomberg.

Sydney house and apartment prices have soared 40 per cent from their May 2012 trough to a record, forcing regulators to call on banks to strengthen lending standards and warn of the potential for values to drop. That comes as wages growth slows to the lowest on record, rental yields approach an all time low in Sydney and Moody's Investors Service saying housing affordability in the city has deteriorated.

"When you compare home-price surges between early 2000s and now, this time income is static or lower in real terms," said Martin North, a Sydney-based principal at researcher Digital Finance Analytics. "With interest rates at rock bottom, the affordability is not extreme, but it can easily go very bad if rates normalize and add to that static or declining rents."

As of March 31, Sydney households spent an average 35.1 per cent of their income on mortgage repayments, up from 32.8 per cent in 2014, Moody's said in a statement April 27. That compared with 27 per cent for the entire country, the credit ratings firm said. Sydney's market was most at risk of a further decline in housing affordability, it said.

Cheap money - official interest rates are at record lows and average floating mortgage rates at a five decade low - are underpinning the price gains. They are also proving a headache for the central bank as it tries to balance stimulating economic growth post a mining boom with housing that is becoming increasingly unaffordable.

Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glen Stevens has said that while "rather exuberant" Sydney home prices shouldn't dominate monetary policy, they can't be completely ignored and a balance has to be found.

Wages in NSW grew 0.4 per cent in the December quarter from the previous three-month period, close to the lowest on record, while home prices climbed 2.3 per cent in that time.

Auction clearing rates hit a record on April 18, with 88 per cent of the homes that went under the hammer - the dominant method of selling property in Sydney - purchased. The number dropped to 79 per cent on April 25, according to the data.

"There may well be some kind of moderation or even correction in house prices versus wages at some point in the future," said Saul Eslake, the Melbourne-based chief Australia economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "Although that probably won't begin to happen till interest rates start to move up."

Twenty-five out of 28 economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect the RBA to cut the rate by 25 basis points when its board meets May 5. The central bank held its overnight cash target at a record-low 2.25 per cent April 7 and said it could ease at future meetings.

Home prices across eight Australian capital cities climbed 7.4 per cent in the year to March 31 and Sydney values soared at almost double the rate, according to CoreLogic. In comparison, prices rose 6.4 per cent in New York in the year to March 31, according to Zillow Inc. They increased 12.9 per cent in London in the 12 months to Feb. 28, according to Hometrack Ltd.

Investors are driving the demand in Sydney with half the mortgage approvals excluding refinancing flowing to rental properties in February, according to government data. Australia's banking regulator said it will determine this month whether to take additional supervisory action against lenders after urging them in December to limit investor mortgage growth to 10 percent a year and maintain sound lending standards.

Landlords are ignoring a slide in rental yields. Gross rental yields fell close to a record low 3.6 per cent in March in Sydney compared with 3.8 per cent a year earlier, according to CoreLogic.

"When the Sydney housing market starts to lose momentum, there is some risk that recent investors could be left holding a very expensive but low-yielding asset," said Tim Lawless, head of research at CoreLogic.

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