"If family homes are not freed up by the downsizing baby boomers, where will Gen X find their large family home?"
What baby boomers' retirement will mean for the Sydney property market: BIS Shrapnel's Martin Bregozzo
What is passing through the mind of the Sydneysider approaching retirement age right now? Standing on the precipice of oblivion, or beginning to quaff the blissful serenity of freedom? ... unless, of course, the kids have moved back in with grandkids in tow.
The baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – constitute some 25% of Sydney’s population, and for the leading edge of this group – the “imminent retirees” – thoughts of retirement and downsizing are likely to be at the forefront of their minds. And they are beginning to make their plans. Around 80% of the baby boomers own their property outright and – significantly – many also hold investment properties.
With reduced super balances – read sweat and toil of the last 20 years – and no indication of any future success soon, for many, retirement may not be an option in the short to medium term. Indeed, a study by Merrill Lynch (2005) suggests that retirement will be “neither a life of full-time leisure or full-time work”. Similarly, a University of Tasmania study (2007) found that the most likely outcome will be “a phased withdrawal from the labour market over an abrupt cessation from work”. Instead of disappearing, the 65+ers will simply fade away.
The financial model adopted by retirement funds assumes that a retiree will survive on regular series of payments, in a special – almost magical world – where costs (such as electricity and petrol) remain orderly, until the invested capital, and coincidently the retiree, expire around the age of 85 ... but there is an awful lot of living to do in the intervening 20 years. And this is not a generation renowned for its thrift like its predecessors – a good news story for the retail and hospitality sectors. Not so good for any prospective 86-year-olds, or those banking on an inheritance, or those hoping to rise the corporate ladder by filling the retirees’ old positions.
Consequently, some baby boomers may opt to augment their retirement finances by selling the family home and downsize to a more affordable dwelling, while others may sell and move to enjoy the fruits of their next life stage.
Marketing to the baby boomer generation has focussed on larger apartments, with space and storage, good quality design, and offering security and lifestyle. Conversely, a 2001 study by BIS Shrapnel on Sydney’s empty-nesters found that preferences lay in single-level villas, acknowledging that stairs would become an issue in the future. Ideally, dwellings would have ample space, but small, low maintenance gardens – a place for barbecues and grandkids – or better still large balconies as an extension of the leisure-orientated living area with common area rooftop gardens.
A further common theme is that location is paramount – they will not be herded off to Sydney’s Never Never. While some may move away to be close to their children, to find a more affordable dwelling, or move to leisure/lifestyle areas, most prefer where they live and wish to remain there. Developments to accommodate this group need to be strategically placed (walking distance) from their local haunts. The majority will not, so it seems, relocate to the Gold Coast. These people want to live – and live it up – not simply exist.
However, the supply of land for new development in Sydney is tight. After taking into account the cost of land in the established areas and all of the changeover costs, downsizing to a new home doesn’t provide much change after selling your established home – even if the land isn’t as big as their current home. If new dwelling prices stymie the trade down activity of the baby boomer generation, what will be the impact on the market?
The underlying demand for the baby boomers’ family nest egg will come mainly from the Gen X demographic, with some 26% of Sydney’s population; aspiring to provide their children (Gen Y and Z) with something resembling a house with a backyard, sort of like the one they grew up in. But, if family homes are not freed up by the downsizing baby boomers, where will Gen X find their large family home? Chances are the answer lies to the new housing estates on the city fringes, where the land is available. This is likely to continue to diminish housing affordability in established suburbs, where limited houses will be put on the market, and Gen X demand will be pushed to Sydney’s outskirts. But will the Gen X-ers go there or will they opt to reside in apartments closer in?
Conversely, if the baby boomer generation does downsize en masse, then what impact does this have? House price pressures should ease as established housing stock becomes attainable for the Gen X buyers. However, unless NIMBY-ism attitudes and the planning rules were to change, how do you accommodate both the downsizers and the Gen X-ers in their current suburbs where land supply is tight? In addition to approving larger infill apartment projects, up-zoning to medium (or high) density would squeeze more housing out of the land, especially if neighbours co-operated, on-selling their properties as a single site to developers. Simon and Garfunkel cautioned against being “a rock ... an island”, by co-operating, many more should stand to benefit. Moral of the story: if the neighbours are around the same age, get to know them and encourage them to join the local IMBY chapter. Perhaps greed is good after all?
Sydney’s problem is one of undersupply, which has driven price growth. Specifically, an under-supply in the established communities people desire to remain in. Of course, poor planning, decisions of expediency, easy credit and dual income families have also played their part in driving price growth. Something needs to happen within “the system” so that all these people – baby boomers, Gen X, Y, and Z – can be housed; a greater intensity of land use, especially close to commercial and employment centres; a drive to consolidate the larger land parcels in the suburbs to facilitate medium to high density housing would be a (good?) start.
For other retirees, this will be all too hard; another report (Sweeney, 2006) pointed to “aging in place” for reasons centred around emotional attachment and the notion of the “nest egg” for Gen Y children. Most retirees still remain active, and a “seniors’ needs” refurb of the family home is likely to be a distant expense, some 20 years down the track. Perhaps, in the instance where the land is sufficiently large enough, a granny flat extending the family nest to accommodate the kids (and grandkids) on a permanent basis – maybe they’ll even pay for it! – would be cheaper than the commute to the Sydney’s fringes, just as long as it leaves enough room for the Winnebago.
It looks as though we’ve highlighted the issues facing the medium term outlook for the baby boomers – or have we? The truth of the matter is that this is the demographic that has changed the rules to suit their changing needs, why should retirement be any different? There is no one simple answer; this is an issue of lifestyle choice and locality and some of these choices require change – both subtle and dramatic. BIS Shrapnel is looking to commence a study examining how the landscape will change, the effects on Sydney’s future housing market, supply and demand patterns, and any sub-regional socio-economic variations. It will flag the policy obstacles and highlight the desired dwelling types and locations.
All of this should be to the forefront of a manager’s mind; anyone involved in property – planning, development, investment, design, government policy, tourism … because the field is changing. New game, different rules. Are you prepared?
Martin Bregozzo is a senior project manager and property economist at BIS Shrapnel.