‘Everyone around you is stuck’: First-home buyers suffer as financial hurdles pile up

Guilt wasn’t a common emotion for previous generations of first-home buyers, who saved enough to land their slice of the Australian dream.

In modern Australia, however, the Herculean effort required to step onto the property ladder is creating more mixed emotions for the shrinking number of people who actually manage to cross the financial finish line.

For West Australian Krystal, a renter of 15 years who just finished a two-year search to buy a house, the experience left her feeling grateful and lucky – but it also sparked empathy for her friendship group.

The first-home buyer tells TND that if it wasn’t for several life-changing events, including the death of her father and later the COVID-19 pandemic, she would likely still be stuck renting a property with her partner.

“We wouldn’t be buying had we not got a small inheritance from my father. We only had a small amount of savings in the bank,” she said.

“The only way we were able to save enough to contribute to our deposit was because we funnelled all our savings into it during COVID-19.

“We feel grateful and lucky for that, but there’s this degree of guilt because we look at our peers and they aren’t able to do that – it’s hard to celebrate when everyone around you is stuck.”

Ownership becoming ‘financially unfeasible’

Krystal, like many Australians her age, is acutely aware of the cold, hard facts of the housing market these days – it takes the average family more than a decade to save a house deposit.

Fewer than half of Australians born after the mid-to-late 1980s have managed it, according to 2021 Census figures, which show ownership rates have plunged from 68 per cent in 1981.

For 25- to 29-year-olds the figures are even more stark, falling from 50 per cent in the early 1980s to just 36 per cent of Australians in that age cohort being home owners on the last Census date.

And while a recent turn in the economy has lowered property prices nationwide, they’re still higher than pre-COVID levels, despite higher interest rates significantly constraining borrowing power for families.

University of Sydney researcher Laurence Troy says things are so bad that it’s now “ financially unfeasible” for most Australians aged 25 to 34 to save enough for a deposit without any outside help from their families.

Dr Troy has just finished a report for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), surveying and interviewing first-home buyers about their experiences trying to save.

He found 40 per cent of people are expecting financial support from their family to be able to afford a home, while 74 per cent had been unable to gather more than $5000 in savings.

“We’re returning to previous eras where your life is determined by whether your family has the wealth to support you getting into home ownership,” Dr Troy told TND.

“Owning a property helps you build wealth, and if you’re locked out of that because your family can’t support you … it’s going to be an even greater source of inequality across our society.”

Emotional rollercoaster

Respondents to AHURI’s survey detailed the emotional rollercoaster of trying to get onto the property ladder in modern Australia.

“As time has gone on, I’ve become more and more anxious and almost just a bit, like, hopeless,” one anonymous Sydney resident told researchers.

“You always feel like you are missing the boat, but we aren’t in a position yet to buy a house. So, there isn’t really anything we can do,” a Perth resident told the study.

One of the key findings from the research is that a rise in insecure work and stagnant income growth is restricting many young people from saving enough to buy homes, Dr Troy said.

“Many struggles are driven by the nature of employment these days and the insecurities that exist around that, with fluctuations in employment and the security we get in pay,” he said.

“These aren’t housing questions, but they have a huge impact on our ability to access houses.”

Property search also tough

Krystal told TND that even once her deposit was sorted, it was still an enormous effort to find a suitable property in her price range, which had to be pared back as market realities dawned.

“Our expectations, over time, were eroded quite severely,” she said of the two-year journey.

“What we landed on in the end was that we might be going for a place listed at $700,000, but if it’s advertised at that price, we didn’t expect it to go for that price – that was the minimum.”

After attending 15 unsuccessful auctions, Krystal finally managed to sign the dotted line on a property built in the 1970s. It was a relief, but there are challenges to home ownership, too.

Chief among them is rising interest rates – Krystal received an email informing her that mortgage repayments would be rising in line with the latest hikes.

“It’s going to be a long time before we can feel confident we’ve made a dent in our actual loan,” Krystal said.

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