February 21, 2019 / 11:12 PM / a month ago

Property bust rattles Australia's record-breaking economy

SYDNEY (Reuters) - As property prices rocketed toward the heady peak of Sydney’s real-estate boom in 2017, the bulldozers came to Epping.

FILE PHOTO: A row of newly built apartment blocks is seen in the suburb of Epping, Sydney, Australia February 1, 2019. Picture taken February 1, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Westbrook

Eucalypt-lined streets of red-brick bungalows in the middle-class suburb were snapped up at hefty premiums by developers, razed, and quickly remade as apartment blocks.

Many units were sold off-the-plan - where buyers enter into contracts and pay deposits before construction starts - to Chinese investors drawn by the location’s reputation as a Chinese community hub and its highly-regarded schools.

But prices are now in freefall, and the suburb is being refashioned once more, this time into the epicentre of a bust.

As buyers disappear and miss settlement payments, some projects are sinking under their debts.

“Once the sales rates and pricing dropped, it just couldn’t service all of its commitments,” said Philip Campbell-Wilson, who is liquidating one such new development, Gondon’s Elysee Epping.

Campbell-Wilson is finalising a list of creditors which include building contractors as well as financiers and debts of A$57 million ($40 million).

The developer’s parent company did not return phone calls and sales staff for the development directed Reuters to its receiver, Newgate Advisory, which declined to comment.

Now 61 of Gondon’s 130 apartments are for sale all bundled together to recoup creditors’ funds, pushing prices in the area lower still.

Prices in the Epping area have already fallen more than a fifth from their peak in August 2017, according to data from property consultant Corelogic, the steepest falls in Sydney.

“Up until December there’s actually been an acceleration of the decrease in pricing,” said Jay Carter, sales director at the Australian arm of Chinese developer Poly Real Estate Group Co, which recently built a 516-unit complex in Epping.

Poly plans to hang on to most of roughly 30 unsold apartments in its development in the hopes that the rate of Sydney price falls slowing slightly in January signals the bottom of the market approaching, he added.

BUILDERS HAMMERED

As monthly insolvencies in the construction industry hit their highest in almost three years in November, consequences have begun to ripple outwards through Australia’s economy, which has grown for 27 years straight without a recession.

A slew of profit downgrades and weak results at businesses from banks to advertisers and retailers has followed and the central bank has now opened the door to a cut in interest rates.

Australia’s house price falls are not entirely unwelcome and have been partly engineered by authorities to improve affordability.

Epping prices, for example, doubled in the eight years leading to the 2017 peak.

Curbs on lending to foreigners and a clampdown on capital flows by Beijing hurt demand from Chinese investors, Australia’s largest source of international property investment.

Last financial year, foreign investment in residential property dropped 58 percent to A$12.5 billion, government figures show.

Local residential property investors are also finding it tougher to borrow as banks tighten loan conditions under pressure from regulators.

The impacts have been underestimated according to Peter Summers, chief executive of AVJennings, a developer exposed to suburban markets in Melbourne and Sydney, which is now looking to slow supply as the market turns sour.

“In a couple of projects, we’ve already reduced our stage sizes and delayed a couple of stages,” he said.

The company announced a 91 percent drop in half-year profit as a combination of delays and buyers’ reticence sapped sales.

The pullback is not bad news for everyone.

While the heaviest wipeouts have been reserved for the frothiest sections of the market, like apartments built largely for foreign buyers, developers such as Mirvac Group say they are so far unscathed and even on the lookout for sites.

Price falls are also giving first-home buyers a chance to get into a market ranked as among the least affordable in the world by researcher Demographia, based on the ratio of median house prices to median income.

And with the central bank cooling on the idea of a rate hike, the prospect of higher mortgage repayments sparking a rush of defaults is reduced.

But the sentiment has still brought forward-looking construction indicators to a screeching halt. Monthly building approvals are down by 40 percent from their peak and construction loans hit a three-year low in December.

RIPPLE EFFECT

Profits are falling, or forecast to drop at building suppliers CSR Ltd and Boral Ltd, and ancillary companies are also suffering.

Garbage collector Bingo Industries Ltd on Monday reported a slowdown in building waste volume growth in the first half of its fiscal year, an announcement that halved the value of its shares.

“It flows through everything,” said Jason Teh, Chief Investment Officer at Vertium Asset Management.

Housing price falls tend to discourage spending because home owners feel less wealthy, save more, and cut back on purchases.

“The question is whether there’s more to come...the economic momentum, as showed by company earnings is getting worse,” Teh said, adding it would probably take a central bank rate cut to arrest the decline.

Property classifieds sites Domain Australia Holdings Ltd and News Corp-owned rival REA Group as well as furniture seller Nick Scali are also feeling the negative effects.

Grocers Coles Group Ltd and Woolworths Group Ltd have also reported slowdowns.

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“People are just not as confident or sure as to where things are going,” said Darryl Abotomey, chief executive of car repairer and parts distributor Bapcor Ltd, which has cut its outlook as drivers postpone vehicle servicing.

His thoughts were echoed at Epping, where realtor Oliver Yap said an apartment nearby that fetched A$562,000 a year ago had taken months to attract a A$415,000 offer. Rents have also sagged.

“We don’t think this year will be good, there’s no reason for it to be good,” Yap said. “There is a huge oversupply of apartments.”

Reporting by Tom Westbrook

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