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Made to measure? Ready to wear? All about off-the-plan apartments

Last week I witnessed the glorious sight of 120 women drinking wine and listening to a seminar on getting started with investing.

Girls Just Wanna Have Funds was a puntastic pleasure. I liked Molly’s description of investment being like the free weights room at the gym: full of men and very intimidating.

(Personally, I am that bitch – the one who struts around the weights room, frowning at men who don’t unrack their weights).

Anyway, the seminar focused a lot on listed investments such as shares and ETFs. This is great, because they can be a wonderful way to get started. (Click here for an explainer).

But I know that when many Australians think of investment, they think of property. And so, I wanted to talk about something in the news recently: buying off-the-plan apartments.

I know people who have done this successfully, so I’m not here to throw shade at the whole idea.

But when a big developer went bust last week, it added to the negative headlines around this sector. Remember the infamous Opal Tower, whose residents were evacuated at Christmas thanks to some big concrete cracks? It was followed by a similar issue in Mascot recently.

As a result, people are scratching their heads about whether purchasing off-the-plan is such a great idea. So, let me give you a quick rundown on the pros and cons of this style of investment.

Why do developers sell off-the-plan?

So they can borrow money to build. Most developers don’t just use their own money for a project; they usually need a loan.

And the lender wants to know that buyers have put their money on the table to provide ‘debt cover’ for the loan. Once the lender feels comfortable that they could be repaid if things go wrong, they’ll stump up the money for construction to start.

Why do people buy off-the-plan?

Lots of different reasons, but here are some:

  • Brand spanking new – nobody else has lived there when you move in. Some people really like that. You can often choose the fixtures and finishes too, so it is like buying a made-to-measure wedding dress  – the design is standard but the details are yours.
  • Lock in a price upfront – this is appealing in a rising market. Say you agree to pay $500K and then the market rises by 5% over the next year – your asset has increased in value by $25K without you doing anything.
  • Have time to save up – the time that the developer spends marketing and building the property is often a couple of years. So, you have that time to keep saving and boost your deposit/reduce your mortgage – all the while knowing you have locked in a price that won’t go up.
  • Depreciation tax benefits – when you buy a property as an investment, you may be able to claim ‘depreciation’ as the property ages. It’s quite complicated, but it can give you some tax benefits.

So, there are definitely upsides to the idea. But there are some risks to consider too:

The project may not go ahead. The developer normally has to wait and sell a good chunk of the units – maybe 75% or more – before building can start. In the market peak, when projects sometimes sold out in days, that wasn’t such an issue. But at this point in the cycle, sales have slowed significantly.

So, it could take months or years to reach the minimum debt cover; and in the worst case scenario, they never get there. That doesn’t mean you lose the deposit – you have just have that cash locked up in some sort of trust account, earning little to no interest. The contract should have a sunset clause that says if the project doesn’t start by X Date, the buyers can have their money back. So, be clear what that date is when you sign up!

The value of the property might fall by the time it’s finished. As explained above, you can make money in a rising market by locking in a price and just waiting. Perhaps that $500K unit is worth $550K the day you move in.

But in a falling market, it can lose value instead, and the unit is now valued (by a professional valuer) at $450K.

It’s only a paper loss at this stage – i.e. you don’t lose the money until you sell it. But where it can cause trouble is if you’re getting a mortgage. The bank will agree to lend a percentage of the VALUE, not the PRICE. So, if they are providing 80%, it’s 80% of that $450K. If they won’t go any higher, you need to find the extra money somewhere else. If you can’t find it, you may have to walk away … and lose the deposit.

The finished building may be poor quality. That’s what happened with the Opal Tower. Most finished buildings end up with some defects, anything from broken tiles to leaking windows. Many only appear over time, and the builder is contractually obliged to fix them within a certain period from completion.

It’s when that period is over, or when the cause of the problem is unclear, that things can escalate.

I should point out that this isn’t unique to new buildings. My own apartment block is 20 years old and had a very expensive water seepage issue a few years ago. That’s why the strata has insurance and collects a sinking fund. Although if that’s not enough, you can get hit with a ‘special levy’. Home ownership can be hard!

The developer could go broke before it’s finished. This is a remote risk, but the key is to be aware of what your contract says. We don’t know all the facts yet, but word on the street is that Ralan, the developer who just collapsed, had convinced its buyers to release their deposit to cover interest costs. This is highly unusual – some are saying it’s even illegal – but the fact is, everyday buyers wouldn’t have realised what they’d signed up to.

And if it’s true (as some have suggested) that the conveyancers they used were recommended by the developer, it’s even fishier.

Life pro tip: whatever big purchase you make, always get your own, independent advice, from mortgage brokers through to lawyers. Don’t use the people your vendor recommends!

So, should you buy off the plan?

It’s totally up to you. Like every single investment, there are risks and rewards. The key is to see them all in advance.

One option is to buy recently completed apartments –  this ‘residual stock’ may be marketed as ‘Final Release’ and is made up of the units that weren’t sold in the pre-sales period. They don’t want to dump them on the market in a fire sale, so they sell them off one by one. These are an option if you want a brand new place, but also want to see it first – like a wedding dress that’s ‘off the rack’.

Overall, any investment comes down to your personal goals and preferences. Buying property for investment creates concentration risk – i.e. putting all your eggs in one basket – but some people like the feeling of being able to see and touch their investment. If you’re buying to live in it, the risks (and benefits) can be different, but they still exist.

Before you make any decision, be sure to have a clear view of your timeframe, risk appetite and lifestyle preferences. And please, if you do go ahead, get decent legal and tax advice. Think of it as part of the cost – you need someone providing you with objective advice and pointing out any red flags.

 

The property market right now: headed for a full-blown Britney meltdown?

If the residential property market was a person, it would be an Instagram influencer selling you slimming tea right now.

Any article about house prices is clickbait gold for publishers.

If you have a property, you want to know what it’s doing.

If you don’t, you want to know if you’ll ever afford one.

(If you’re a communist hoping for the proletariat to expropriate the bourgeoisie from private property, it’s less relevant).

So it’s in the media’s interests to run story after story predicting housing Armageddon.

The other night, a story on 60 Minutes proclaimed the end of days for property. It was alarmist claptrap. Some of the points were accurate, but the tone and conclusion was an irresponsible media beat-up.

Making sense of the drama

I work in an investment firm specialising in real estate, and I spent last year working in the mortgage broking industry. So I’ve seen it from a few angles.

Nobody has all the answers (and don’t trust anyone who says they do). But this post will hopefully give you a bit of insight into the headlines.

Are we heading for a property market crash?

Nobody knows for sure. But it’s important to remember that property follows a cycle. Just like sharemarkets, property prices rise for a while, get so high they are unsustainable and then come back down.

This is as normal as your menstrual cycle. Home prices will moderate eventually, just as sure as I will turn into a bloated eating machine a week out from my period. (Hey, I did the sums in MyFitnessPal today and was totally allowed to eat that TimTam).

But the crazy thing about cycles is that when they’re peaking, people forget they end.

You know how when you’re drunk at 2am and having the best time of your life, you assume you’re gonna feel like this forever. Life is ah-mazing.

Well, house prices in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane have had a long, intense party. Many tequilas were slammed. Many tables were danced on. But in the end, the ugly lights have come on and the bouncers are shooing us out.

What we do know about these cycles is that the pain will be unevenly shared. Some areas will fall faster and further. Outer suburbs and regional towns are often in the firing line.

Inner city areas and premium areas will fall a bit, but it’s very unlikely we will see the 40% price falls one analyst mentioned (although he only said there was a 1 in 5 chance of that).

For one thing, our population is growing at 2.6% a year (ABS stats), which creates ongoing demand for housing. There is also pent-up demand from buyers who have been priced out of the market until now. When prices cool, first-home-buyers and upsizers pounce on the discounted properties.

Long story short, most industry people see this as a market cooling – not crashing.

Is there a massive debt bubble that will burst and cause havoc?

Probably not. But there may be some pain ahead for people who are stretched to the limit. One of the big issues is interest-only loans. Strap yourself in for a quick primer on this – it’s kind of important.

A normal principal-and-interest (P&I) mortgage sets the minimum repayments based on the interest, plus the amount you borrowed – remembering that in a 25-year mortgage you can end up paying almost as much in interest as you borrowed originally.

mmm, cheesecake…

So if you think of it like eating a cheesecake – in a P&I loan, you eat some of the cheesy goodness (interest) and the crumbly base (the principal) all on one delicious spoonful, a mouthful at a time.

But in an interest-only loan, you just eat the filling and leave the crust till later. Sure you’ve spent less calories but now you’re stuck with a dry old base.

This is where the analogy probably falls apart, but the outcome of interest-only (IO) is it’s cheaper at first, but somewhere down the line you probably have to stump up for the principal repayments.

Traditionally these IO loans were given to investors for tax reasons. They can also be good if you have temporary cashflow issues like two small kids in daycare.

But they became much more popular when property prices went through the roof. Why? Because it’s hard to afford the repayments on million-dollar mortgage.

So some greedy/stupid/careless lenders and brokers have shoveled a bunch of people into these loans. And the regulator, APRA, took a look at it and was like:

So they told the banks to dial it down as part of several ‘macroprudential reforms’.

And the best way to reduce demand for a product? Make it more expensive. IO rates went up, the loans were harder to get and APRA was happy with the reduction in new loans.

However, there are literally millions of old IO loans kicking around. Two-thirds of these are going to hit the end of their five-year IO period by 2020 (source).

Some borrowers will be able to roll those into another interest-only period, but others won’t. And some will be shocked and/or disappointed about this, as it can be a big jump in costs. Some people may be forced to sell if they can’t afford it.

Either way, it’s going to be a period of transition in coming years.

If you’re interested, I recommend this speech by the RBA’s Christopher Kent. But the TL;DR is that it’s not going to be a total disaster. He is pretty chill: “For the household sector as a whole, however, the cash flow effect of the transition is likely to be moderate.”

There are other commentators out there saying otherwise, because they like drama and headlines. But if our nation’s central bank is chill, then I’m chill.

If you personally have an IO loan and you haven’t thought about how you’ll afford it when it rolls onto P&I, then you’d better start. Because there’s no guarantee you’ll get another crack at IO.

What’s the verdict then?

Is the housing market about to do a Britney: mess up at the VMA’s and shave its head in public?

I don’t think so. It will go through some tough times. Gain a few kilos. Have a few drunk nights. Marry a random in Vegas maybe. But it always does that when it’s stressed.

Overall, it will be ok.

You know, I really could go on and on about this stuff because I find it super interesting. But I’ll stop here, and encourage you to get in contact with me if you have questions or ideas for related posts.

Investing 101 – Explained in shoes. Because, why not?

There is one important things that bad-arse, grown-up ladies do with their money.

And no, it’s not buy designer handbags.

Ok  maybe some do – but that’s not what this post is about.

No, what really grown-up ladies do is invest their money. Don’t be put off by that word ‘invest’.

You don’t need a finance degree to invest.

You can get someone to do it for you if you like.

Just like you don’t need to be a colourist to get your hair coloured, you don’t need to be a finance expert to invest.

You may want the guidance or input of a financial adviser. But you can also get a feel for it by starting small and being smart.

What sort of investments?

Well there are lots of ‘asset classes’, but the most popular ones in Australia are shares, property and cash. They all have different pros and cons, so I like to explain them like a shoe wardrobe.

Cash: your work flats – Not very exciting, and not much benefit to your outfit, but geez they are comfy and reliable. Especially if you have to hike to a meeting at the other end of town.

Similarly, putting cash in the bank has a low return, but you know you’ll get all of it back at any time.

Now, I don’t believe you should go to important meetings in flats. And so with cash, it’s fine for some purposes, but it’s not an ideal long-term play because of two reasons:

1) Opportunity cost – the longer you have it in the bank getting stuff-all interest, the more you miss out on the sweet gainz you could be getting in something like shares or property. There is also no way to reduce the tax you pay on any interest, so you pay your marginal rate (i.e the same as your income tax).

2) Inflation risk – as inflation rises, the buying power of your money decreases. If you are getting 2% in the bank, and inflation is 2.5%, then you effectively lose money, because it’s worth less than before.  (I have a whole post on this if you’re interested – here)

Now, if you’re really committed to cash because you’re risk averse or don’t quite know when you’ll want your money back, there is a subset of cash called Enhanced Cash (or similar names).

It tends to give you a couple of percentage points higher than a bank deposit, but is still pretty safe. Think of it as a strappy summer flat – a bit more pizzazz but no real risk of limping home in bare feet, with the balls of your feet burning.

One example is Smarter Money Investments, which I name here because I know the guy who runs it – he is a massive nerd and gets great returns (and for full disclosure, my employer owns some of it). There are other products out there which you could consider from a range of fund managers.

These products aren’t exactly the same as putting cash in the bank, but they are low on the risk spectrum. Make sure you read the fine print.

PropertyYour winter boots – If your boot wardrobe is anything like mine (extensive and carefully curated) then you’d know there are hits and misses. I have faves that have done the hard yards and been a damn great buy.

One of my fave buys

Then there are ones like the blue velvet over-the-knee pair. They were on sale, I had to own them, but now I can’t find anything to wear with them. In investing, this is called ‘poor asset selection’.

Buying investment property is really dependent on how well you choose. Unlike the velvet boot purchase, your property choice should be carefully researched, highly rational and based on solid data sources.

Despite what people say, not all property goes up in value, all the time. It is true that property has been the best-performing asset class in the last couple of decades, but that is an average.

Some locations or house types languish, or even go down. So while property can be a great way to build wealth, it needs more than a good knowledge of colour swatches and Ikea assembly.

The latest Russell Investments report looking at historical returns, warns that even though residential property is the best performer on average, “there was wide variation between regions, dwelling types and suburbs, with some areas declining”.

This is a risk of single-asset investing – imagine if every time you went out, all you had were those blue velvet boots!

So, just be really well-prepared if you go down this road.  And if you don’t want to go it alone, you have a couple of choices.

  1. Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) – these are a collection of properties parcelled together, and you  buy ‘units’ of them on the ASX, a bit like you buy shares. The value of the units can go up and down depending on the market (and  don’t always reflect what’s happening in the rest of the property sector. They got hammered in the GFC, for example).

    However, they give you a different flavour to traditional shares (aka equities) and the cost of entry is lower than stumping up for a house or apartment. They also give you access to more than just residential property – so you can own offices, warehouses and other commercial buildings. This provides diversification.

  2. Work with a professional property adviser – Someone like Anna Porter, who is a Fierce Girl-style powerhouse, if you ever get to see her speak. Her company does all the research and then advises on which property to buy. There are lots of similar advisers out there – but make sure they are independent and not just trying to spruik an overpriced new development.

 

Overall, Aussies love property investment and aren’t going to stop any time soon.

But I will just say this: don’t assume that just because you live in a house, you know how to invest in one.

It requires skill, knowledge and yes – luck – to get right.

Shares – your fancy, going-out-to-dinner heels. They give you great rewards (you feel so sexy) but they also have more risks – from tripping over, through to searing pain in your foot.

Shares have historically given great returns. (Nice chart on that here). But they do it with more volatility.

If you happen to put money in just before some stock market craziness, then, yeah you’ll lose some of it quicker than a Bachelor contestant loses her shit at a rose ceremony.

But, just like the resilient young ladies of The Bachelor, you’ll get back up and repair your losses over time. You need time and patience though – if you lack either of those, you could turn the ‘on paper’ loss into a real loss.

That said, there is a lot to like about shares. Not only are they strong performers in terms of returns, they are liquid (i.e. you can usually sell them way faster than a house). You can buy just a few and pay nothing more than a brokerage fee for the privilege, whereas property needs a big upfront investment and has quite a few of costs, from stamp duty through to legal fees.

I’ve written more about shares in this delightfully named piece: Buying shares is pretty much like choosing a husband.

Which investment has the best returns?

You know I’m not going to give you an easy answer.

The thing to remember with any investment is that when people (i.e. the media, finance types, blokes in pubs) talk about returns, they are often talking about that whole asset class.

The Russell Investments report shows that:

Australian shares returned 4.3%, before tax, in the ten years to Dec 2016. But that’s the market average. You may have bought some shares that went bananas and made 20%. Or you bought some that tanked and you barely broke even.

Ideally, neither of these things happened, because you had a diverse portfolio  where the winners and losers balance each other out.

You can do this by investing in managed funds, listed investment companies or exchange-traded funds. (More on that here).

Residential property returned 8.1%, before tax, in the 10 years to Dec 2016. Yeah, almost double the return of shares. But that’s a helicopter view. There are people who made way more than that because they picked a lucky location; then some people in places like Perth and Mackay who watched their properties fall 20% or more in value.

There are also more asset classes than what’s discussed here (alternatives, international shares, fixed income etc). I have just focused on the most popular.

Then there is tax. And it’s complicated.

Broadly speaking, property investing can be good for people who have a high tax bill, as they can declare a loss and claim it as a tax deduction (the oft-discussed ‘negative gearing’).

And for people who pay low or no income tax, Aussie shares can be great because of dividend imputation (aka franking credits). Now I won’t explain these, because working them out literally made me cry in my finance degree. But the outcome is, the less tax you pay, the more you get a bonus return on top. (If you’re interested, I co-wrote this article on the topic).

Of course, you should discuss these tax-type things with an accountant or financial adviser. My main point is that looking at a headline return isn’t very accurate – it depends on your costs, tax rate and timing.

You can start small

Despite all these caveats and warnings, the message I want to give you is this: investing is a key part of building wealth (remember the Four Best Friends Who Will Make You Rich?). Letting your cash sit in the bank forever or spending it whenever you get it, won’t get you closer to your ideal lifestyle.

The more you learn about it now, and the earlier you start, the more you could make over time.

Don’t be afraid to start small. I’ve been running a little portfolio on Acorns, and it’s doing well. Even popping $500 into a managed fund or listed investment company can be a good start.

That’s the key though: you need to start somewhere.

And if all this seems like a lot of information, that’s fine too. It’s totally ok to ask for help. Talk to an adviser, or a trusted friend or family member. You don’t have to be an expert to be an investor.

Photo credits:
M.P.N.texan Good Shoes via photopin (license)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/reverses/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/simpleskye/

Don’t panic and start early: wise words from rich people

One perk of my job is that I get to hang out with some pretty rich people.

Ok, when I say ‘hang out’, I don’t mean we are drinking champagne on their yachts. More like, we are in meeting rooms and they are telling me the finer details of their investment strategy, so I can PR the shit out of it.

How rich? Well some are just really well-paid, others have a few million sunk in their fund management companies, and a handful are serious, yacht-owning, penthouse-buying ballers.

(On a side note, they are generally totally low-key about their wealth – you have to notice their watches, or do the sums on their ‘funds under management’ to get the idea).

Anyway, because I love you Fierce Girls, and am always thinking about ways to help you own it, I have been asking these people what advice they have for the mere mortals among us. Here are some of the wise words I’ve heard.

Don’t Panic. This is from a lovely fund manager who grew up on a pineapple farm and has just launched one of the biggest listed investment companies on the ASX.  Oh, and he was a professor of finance at one stage (WTF).

His message was that in the current housing market, it can feel like you have to do something fast or you’ll miss out forever.  That’s a natural reaction when prices go up as fast as they have been. And it doesn’t help your FOMO levels when you read about 30 year old property barons. (By the way, Buzzfeed has a very interesting take-down of these stories – recommended read).

Yes house prices are crazy, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. But every generation has its challenges in getting onto the property ladder.

My Gran and Poppa lived in a car container for the first year of their marriage. Gran said she felt pretty lucky, because all some people had was a tent! That was actually a thing in post-war Australia – building materials were rationed, hence all those pokey little fibro cottages. Buying land was kinda easy, but building a house on it? Not so much.

And then our parents’ generation struggled with 18% interest rates and a major recession. Yes, they were still spending less in comparison to wages (as I explain here), but I’m sure we can all agree it felt pretty fucking stressful at the time. And unemployment was high AF, so there was also the chance you could lose your job.

Yes, it’s hard and scary to buy property now, but it always has been. You have to accept that and find a way around it. Maybe you can’t buy in Sydney, for example, but can you buy somewhere else for under $500K and rent it out? Probably.

You still need to do boring things like cut back your spending and save like a tight-arse – but I can tell you right now my Gran was not getting her nails done when she was living in a one-room shed with a husband and a baby.

And if you play the long game, knuckle down, and get serious about saving, you will get there eventually.

Start investing early and take on more risk when you’re young – This solid piece of advice comes from one of my favourite low-key rich people. He manages ridiculous amounts of money for ridiculously rich people, but still gets excited about getting a great deal at the Anytime Fitness near his apartment building. And when I say his building, this guy’s company literally built and sold the whole thing.

Anyway, the point here is two-fold. Firstly, the earlier you start, the easier it is to make gains – this is the magic of compound returns. Please go play with this calculator to see what I mean.

The second point is that you can tolerate more risk when you’re young, because you have a longer investment horizon. If you lose a little bit one year, you have more years to make it back.

Markets are volatile, so you have to build in the likelihood of loss every now and then. In fact, most super funds work out their investment risk based on how often they can lose money. A medium-risk option might tolerate 2-3 years of negative returns over 20 years, while a higher risk option would make a loss in 4-6 years – although aiming for higher returns too. (There’s a good explanation of this concept here).

The upshot is, you can’t make all the money, all the time – but if you have time on your side, you can upsize your risk profile, as well as capture the magic of compound returns.

As you get closer to retirement, and have less time to make up for losses, you should dial down your risk profile accordingly. Some super funds now just do it for you – it’s called a ‘lifecycle’ strategy.

(If you want to read about risk and the different ways it applies to your money, check out my earlier post.)

The key here is that  you don’t have to drop a million bucks on a property to make this advice work. You could sign up to the Acorns app, for example, and start socking away loose change into an ETF. (Of course, do your own research on it).

But remember, you can start small, just as much as you can start early.

So that’s it for now. I have a few more nuggets of advice up my sleeve, which I’ll share in future. In the meantime, ladies, stay Fierce.

Getting a home loan: a Fierce Girl guide for rookies

So you’re going  to buy a property? Congratulations! You must have sold an organ or won the lottery.

Maybe you saved your arse off, or got some help from the parentals. Either way, you have squirreled away enough money for a deposit.

Otherwise, you’re reading this because it’s useful information to have in approximately 72 years when you have saved up enough. I get it – it’s like watching Jamie Oliver.  You aren’t really going to make that 30-minute Peruvian rotisserie chicken, but it feels good intending to.

And like most finance stuff, there’s a whole world of bullshit jargon and rules you’ve never heard of. It’s like your mum trying to navigate Instagram – ‘what does ‘AF’ stand for?’.

I am going to break down the process, but it really is a lot of learning so I’ll keep it topline for now. If you get really excited, you can Google more info.

Find out how much you can borrow.

There are plenty of nifty ‘borrowing power’ calculators that give you a general idea. They’re pretty generous though – they suggest that you can buy a chateau on the banks of the river Seine … as long as you eat baked beans and shop at K-Mart for the rest of your adult life.

So you need to sit down with an actual mortgage broker and go through it.

Make friends with a mortgage broker

Should you use a broker? Fuck yes. Seriously, you’ll feel like a bloke who’s wandered into Sephora if you try and work this shit out yourself. A mortgage broker does all the work for you and you don’t even need to pay them – the winning lender does that!

Keep an eye out to make sure they aren’t just suggesting the loans aligned with their brand. For example, Aussie Home Loans can act as a broker as well as sell you an Aussie loan – but only if it’s the best deal. They have a professional obligation to do what’s in your best interest..

Occasionally you can get a deal that’s not available through a broker – e.g. I refinanced to a UBank home loan that my broker couldn’t match, even though he is a top bloke. But that was when I was already somewhat versed in this stuff. If you’re a virgin, you don’t really want to mess around with clueless Year 8 boys now, do you?

How do you find a broker? Ask around. People who have a good one will happily recommend them – maybe it’s because they play a positive role in such a big event, but people seem to get attached.

Things that might affect your borrowing power:

  • Credit cards. The limit you have is seen as a liability, even if the balance is zero. So if you have a $10,000 limit, the bank assumes you have that much debt and that counts it as a competing priority for your hard-earned cash. So either cancel unnecessary cards or reduce your limits.
  • Personal or car loans – again, if you owe $20K on a car loan, the bank will take this into account. Sensible Aunty Belinda says what business do you have buying a house when you are still paying off a car – HOWEVER, this is the real world, so if you are, be aware that it crimps your spending power.
  • Your credit score. Like an inner wild child, everyone has one of these – even if they don’t know it. If you buggered up a mobile phone plan as a 19 year old, your credit score will know. If you didn’t return that Mean Girls DVDs to the store in 2005, they will know. OK, maybe not the latter one – but you will have a score, it might be compromised by a bad decision or oversight, and you need to know about it. Google ‘credit score’ and get a free one.
  • Your savings history. Even if you have been gifted a hefty sum from the ‘bank of mum and dad’, you need to show the bank you can be a grown up and pay off a mortgage. So they will want to see your bank statements to reassure themselves of that fact.

Building in a buffer

Now just because you CAN borrow a certain amount, doesn’t mean you NEED to. Banks are pretty clueless about how much they think you actually spend. They will say ‘your repayments are this, and your spending is that, so you can borrow this BIG AMOUNT.’

But they don’t know about your penchant for annual ski trips, your addiction to spray tans or your deep-seated desire to pay 30 bucks a pop for an F45 workout. So unless you intend to live like your Nanna, don’t take the max amount.

Also, remember that we are at crazy low interest rates right now, and they won’t last forever. You need a decent buffer in case rates go up, so get your broker to run the numbers as though rates had gone up 3% or more. If you almost pass out when you see those repayments, it means you can’t afford it.

The next step is to get pre-approval on the loan you want. That means you can go to auctions and sales and feel like you have the money in your hot little hand. You actually don’t, because the bank still needs to approve the property you buy, and a bunch of other boring details. But it’s the closest you’ll get until you do the deed for real.

The paperwork gauntlet

Applying for a home loan is seriously one of the biggest paperwork fuck-arounds you will ever experience. They want payslips, bank records, identification and whether you’re oily, dry or combination skin. Well, it feels like it anyway.

A good mortgage broker will hold your hand through it, but be ready to spend time and frustration on it.

Crunching the numbers

How much does a property cost? More than you think. The purchase price is just the start. Other costs are:

  • Legal/conveyancing fees. Depends on who you use and what you need but factor in at least a couple of grand.
  • Building inspections – A few hundred bucks every time you get serious about a property and want to make sure it’s structurally sound and not full of termites.
  • Stamp duty – This is the big one. If you’re a first home buyer, some states have exemptions or discounts, so check out your state government website. Working out the amount is pretty complicated and different in each state, so check out the calculators you find online or ask your broker. But it can add tens of thousands of dollars to your purchase price.
  • Lenders’ Mortgage Insurance – Another annoying trap for the rookie. If you have less than 20% of the deposit, the bank thinks you’re risky. So they make you take out insurance on the amount that’s short. E.g. If you’re at 18%, you may need insurance on the missing 2%. If you get one of those ‘95% of purchase price’ loans, they will hit you hard with this. You don’t have to find this money upfront – they whack it onto the mortgage. But if you throw an extra, say, $10k onto your mortgage, you are then paying interest on it. It’s a rort in my opinion, so do everything you can to scrape up the 20% deposit.On a side note, when I bought my place, the bank valued it at $40K higher than what we paid. We had been just shy of 20%, but at the bank’s valuation, we hit the 20% mark, so my awesome broker made them waive the couple of grand extra we would have spent on LMI. Suffer, bank!

Choosing a loan

Fixed, variable, offset, redraw – WTF? Relax, it’s not that complicated.

The first thing to decide is whether to have a fixed rate, meaning the interest rate doesn’t change. A variable loan goes up and down at the whim of the Reserve Bank or even just when your bank feels like it.

A fixed rate means you have more certainty for the term of it (often 3 years) but you are also stuck if rates go down, and may face a fee if you pay the loan out early (a break fee).

There are pros and cons of each, and basically, it’s like placing your money on red or black on a pokie machine – it could go either way. Choose the option that you can sleep at night with.

Then there is ‘offset account’. This is where any money in your bank account counts towards (offsets) the loan. Say you have a cool $10K of your everyday money kicking around in your bank account (well done, I wish I could manage that).

The bank acts as though you paid that money to them, and reduces the amount you pay interest on. So for example instead of paying interest on $400K, you pay it on $390K. All adds up, my friend!

A redraw is similar but I prefer it because it’s an extra level of discipline. Any money that you pay on top of the minimum repayment goes to the loan, but you can redraw it out again. Say you made $10K extra in payments last year – you can claw that back if you need an emergency boob job or something.

In my experience, once that money is in there, it’s a huge guilt trip to pull it out again – and you usually have to wait a day.

In terms of rates, your broker should find the best one for you. But here’s a hot tip – it’s probably not going to be with one of the big 4 banks. It might be with some credit union, or an online bank (like my UBank loan). So don’t be sucked in by their branding. Also, bear in mind the ‘comparison rate’ – this means if they say the rate is 4%, but by the time you add fees and charges, it comes out more like 4.2%, they have to say so. Try and find one with minimal fees, obvs.

Now I am not going to give you any advice about actually choosing a property because that’s a whole other topic and one I’m not really an expert in. But suffice to say do your research – lots of it.

So that’s it Fierce Girls. Save this in your files for your happy house-hunting in the year 2067!

 

4 reasons you can stop panicking about buying a home

Sometimes it feels like all money conversations come back to this issue. Can I buy my own home? Will I be a failure if I don’t? Can I ever afford one?

And it’s not a daydreamy, hypothetical convo, like ‘What if I called my kid Joaquin? Would people know how to pronounce it? Did the Pheonix family really lay the groundwork here?”.

No, the tone is more like ‘Will I die in a gutter, languish in poverty, or be photographed collecting mail in nothing but a bedsheet, if I don’t get onto the property ladder?’.

There is a sense of panic, as if not hobbling yourself with a million dollars in debt means you will end up on the scrapheap of life.

So let’s all just take a moment and STOP PANICKING. People who panic don’t make good decisions. You know that dress you bought the day before a high-stakes date with Mr Future Husband? Let’s admit: you’ve never worn it again.

Instead, let’s have some realtalk about property, saving and wealth.

Because there are more ways to build wealth than buying a house.  Property is just one ‘asset class’, as the professionals call them. There are many more (read a whole post about it here) and they are all viable ways to build wealth.

However, there are some valid reasons that people go nuts for property in Australia. For example:

  • It can increase in value without you doing anything (aka ‘capital growth’)
  • It is easy to borrow money, because it’s a secured asset. In other words, the bank can repossess it if you go broke, to get its money back. It’s more complicated for banks to do that with something likes shares.
  • You get great tax breaks. If you sell the home you live in and make a profit on it, you don’t have to pay capital gains tax on that profit. If you did the same with any other investment – e.g. shares, bonds or an investment property – you would. And then there is the old negative gearing heist (which I won’t go into here – but basically the government rewards you for losing money – wtf?).
  • You get to live in it and nobody can kick you out. You can also renovate and hang hooks and shit. (Although why anybody in their right mind would renovate is beyond me. Dust, paint splatter and interminable trips to Bunnings. Lord give me strength).

These are all compelling reasons that I acknowledge warmly. I own property and it has been a good investment.

But here are some downsides that don’t get a lot of airplay, especially in the media.

By the way, the mainstream media has a huge vested interest in talking up property. Ever notice those thick, glossy real estate liftouts in the paper? Yep, they are rivers of gold for media companies, so it’s not in the interests of News Ltd, Fairfax or their mates to say ‘hold up, property is totes overrated!’, is it?

But here are some counterpoints to the national narrative.

1. You pay a huge amount of interest over the life of a mortgage

This graph is from an earlier post (which you should also read). I include it here to defy the people who say ‘renting is just giving money away to someone else’. Well, Mr Mansplainer, a mortgage is just giving  interest payments to a bank.

Say you borrow $500,000 over 25 years, you will pay nearly $300,000 in interest (at 4%, which is a historically low rate in this country). That interest amount is represented by the light pink below.

Source: Moneysmart.gov.au

Source: Moneysmart.gov.au

Hopefully the property increases in value so you make some of that money back. But it’s not guaranteed. Which brings me to the next point.

2. House prices don’t always go up

I know, they do in your living memory, and certainly in the last few years. Mr Mansplainer may even tell you ‘house prices double every seven years’.

HOWEVER, this somewhat dubious assertion is based on averages, which don’t tell the whole story. You know, your ex-boyfriend was only an arsehole to you half the time, on average. But that didn’t make it worth staying with him.

Don’t just take my word for it – take the Reserve Bank’s! I know you won’t read their paper on the topic, so let me summarise. House prices rise faster and slower depending on other stuff going on in the economy.

But over the long-term, that shit is all over the place. The graph below gives you an idea of how house prices resemble a 5-year-old kid high on fairybread and Cheezels at a birthday party.

screenshot-2017-02-26-at-11-28-45-am

 

 

 

 

Source: RBA (which is why it’s crappy low-res). NB: This shows prices when inflation is removed. 

So it depends on when you bought, and also where you bought. And so we come to another point.

3. Picking property is a lottery

When we talk about property going up by, say 7% a year, that’s averaged out across the country. It masks the fact that some people bought gems, while others bought dogs.

Maybe they paid too much in the first place. Maybe they bought in an area that hasn’t gone up much, or worse, in an area that has gone down. Places like Mackay or Townsville boomed as a result of mining a few years back. Now, they have bust, with prices actually dropping.

Here’s a real-life example. A couple I know, let’s call them Kylie and Jim, bought a new house in an estate in Townsville in 2004. They paid $254,000.

Five years later, having been sent interstate for work, they sold it for $379,000, netting them a tidy profit of $125,000 (less taxes and costs). Nice deal.

That same house sold this year for $340,000.

Yep,  eight years later, it sold for nearly $40,000 LESS than it did in 2009.

Kylie and Jim were just lucky that they caught the cycle on its way up, and got out before it went down.

If you live somewhere like Sydney right now it’s easy to feel like there is only one direction and pace for prices: up and fast.

But I know another couple with an investment property on Brisbane’s outer edges, whose property value has grown at about the same pace that I lose fat, i.e painstakingly slowly.

I did some sums on it and the capital growth has been about 2.5% a year. That’s not taking into account the extra money they need to find every month for the mortgage, because it’s negatively geared.

The moral of this story is not that Queensland property is a mug’s game. It’s not – plenty of people have done well there, and all over Australia.

The point is that there is a good deal of luck and timing involved in buying property. The same is true of any asset class. But don’t look at the headline figures and decide buying a property is a rolled-gold, surefire way to get rich. As with any investment, there are risks.  And so, to the next point…

4. We may be in a property bubble – and it could burst

Now I am not a crazy doomsayer. I am only saying we might be in a bubble.

But some people are convinced of it. Here’s a chart of house prices since the 19th century from a blog called macrobusiness (they are a little ‘out there’, but I read widely). All the labels on it are theirs, btw.

Source: Macrobusiness
screenshot-2017-02-26-at-1-21-26-pm

 

 

 

A while back, I fan-girled Greg Medcraft, the head of ASIC (our corporate watchdog in Australia). He was on the 389 bus to Bondi, so I went up to him and started chatting about property bubbles. (True story, I swear). He said words to the effect that when people are in a bubble, they’re in denial about it.

“This time it’s different”, they say – like an ex-boyfriend who’s trying to win you back.

For my mate Greg, this market looks, smells and tastes like a bubble. And that was 2015, before we hit the point of a $1 million median house price in Sydney.

Other people disagree, and point to population growth, lack of supply and a bunch of other factors driving prices ever upward. I see their point too.

The fact is, nobody knows for sure.

If house prices stay high, there are benefits, mainly to people who already own them.

If house prices fall, the economy will definitely suffer – but it will also mean aspiring buyers get a better shot at affording something.

Either way, you shouldn’t give up on the idea of buying your own pad eventually. Which brings me to…

One last (very important) thing. 

If you can’t afford a property yet, that doesn’t mean you can piss your money away in protest or despair.

There are plenty of options for building wealth (check out this post). But you have to get serious about saving and investing to do it (check out this post about the four best friends who will make you rich).

Just because you don’t have a white picket fence doesn’t mean you can’t be a serious money saver or investor.

It doesn’t matter how much you have, saving and investing is a mindset and a habit. So work on that and ignore the noise about house prices, smashed avo and property bubbles.

You’ve got this!

If you liked this post, you could totally sign up to receive more! I post every week and you might not always see them on Facebook (because something something algorithm). So pop your email address in that box up top. Thanks! 

photo credit: ruimc77 Burbujas via photopin (license)

An Insider’s Guide to Finance: the risk-reward relationship

I’ve taken plenty of risks in my life. Some were productive, like packing up and moving to London. Leaving my marriage was a big risk that was hard to take, but the right thing to do. Wearing neon patterned tights with a crushed velvet skirt to a mufti day in year 7 – that risk did NOT pay off in either social or fashion terms.

When it comes to money, you need to get comfortable with risk. You see, there is a thing called the risk-reward premium, which means the higher the risk, the higher the (potential) reward.

This also means you can put a price on risk – the riskier the deal, the higher the stakes.

It’s why a car loan has a much lower interest rate than a credit card. The car can be repossessed if you can’t pay back the loan, while the credit card is ‘unsecured’ – they can’t come after you for the delicious cocktails you just bought, and the bank manager won’t fit into that Kookai dress. So the risk is higher for bank and more expensive for you.

Risky Business?

Now I am not saying let’s go to Vegas and put it all on black.

But when you invest, you want to balance the risk within your portfolio and within the asset class so that you get a good return while not losing your money.

Ok wait, I just dropped some jargon there. Let’s break it down.

Your portfolio is your entire wardrobe.

Your asset classes are each section: shoes, dresses, underwear, activewear, etc.

We talk about being ‘underweight’ or ‘overweight’ certain types of investments. For example, when the banks aren’t performing well, you might sell off some of those stocks and become underweight in banks. Or if you think resources are about to get hot again, you buy more and go overweight.

This can apply within one asset class – so you can be overweight on running shoes and underweight on high heels, within the broad ‘footwear’ asset class.

Or it can apply to the broader asset classes, so you have heaps of activewear, but not much in the way of work clothes (yep, me). That would be like having a lot of property (your own home) but only a small parcel of shares.

So now we have the lingo, let’s talk about risk. Here’s what you need to know:

1. You need some risk in order to make money, and that’s ok.

2. You can manage that risk by spreading it around – aka diversification

Now let’s talk more about that.

Why risk is ok.

Risk is what makes you money. It’s the old adage of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. So it’s safe to keep your money in a term deposit in bank, but that’s not going to make you money.

In fact you could even lose money in the bank.

Wait, what?

Thing is, there are heaps of different risks when it comes to money, and one of them is inflation risk. You know how a bag of lollies used to cost 20 cents when you were a kid, and it’s $2 now? That’s inflation.

The value of money changes over time (it’s a really complicated backstory as to why), but let’s just say, inflation usually runs around 2-3% per year. (It’s lower than that right now, but has often been 5-6% in the past 30 years).

If your money is in the bank getting 2% interest, and inflation is 2%, you aren’t making money, but you’re breaking even. But if inflation goes up to 2.5%, you’re actually losing money. The dollar you put in buys less than what it bought a year ago.

This makes intuitive sense right? Things cost more all the time.

So that’s called Inflation Risk, and it’s a risk you face even when you think you’re not facing a risk. Crazy huh.

Here are some other fun and friendly risks:

Interest Rate Risk – The risk that interest rates will change and affect your investment. For example, you buy a property at 5% interest from the bank and then interest rates go up. Suddenly, the $2000 a month mortgage that was covered by rent becomes $2200. Not only do you have to find more cash, it changes the yield – i.e. the return you’re getting for the money you spend.

Liquidity Risk – The risk that you might not be able to turn your investment into cash as quickly as you need to. In the example above, you decide to sell the house as you can’t cover the repayments. But a bunch of other people have been hit by rate rises and are selling too. And with home loans more expensive, the number of buyers falls. So you might have the house on the market for several months, even drop the price. The property investment has low ‘liquidity’ and it can cause all sorts of headaches.

Market Risk – You can be the best stock picker in the world – or pay the best stock picker – but if the whole market falls, it’s pretty likely your investments will fall too. Economies – and the markets they’re part of – are always cyclical. They go up and down – that’s as much a part of life as the fact that you’ll get your period on the exact day you don’t want it to come.  The trick is to be prepared for the cycle and have diversified your risks – that way you can manage the dips when they come.

This is just a short list to give you a flavour. There are plenty more, like

  • sequencing risk (the risk that your investments are in the toilet right at the time you need them);
  • credit risk (the risk that the company you lent money to – in the form of bonds – goes under and doesn’t pay you back);
  • operational risk (the risk that you invested in a company run by morons who bugger it up and lose your money); and
  • concentration risk (the risk that you put all your eggs in one investment basket and then drop the whole darn basket).

You can make friends with risk

I’m not trying to scare you though. You don’t avoid investing just because there are some risks. If I listened to my mum about all the risks of going on holidays to the US (being shot, getting raped, the plane crashing, the car crashing…) then I’d never go.

What you do is manage risk, by being clear about your time horizons and your goals. (A financial adviser can totally help you there).

The rule of thumb is that you only invest in shares if you have at least a five-year horizon, because that’s how long you need to smooth out their ups and down (technically called volatility).

An investment property generally needs even longer because of the costs and drama associated with buying and selling.

And with your superannuation, you have 30-40 years to smooth out the returns, so if you’re young (under 45 or so) then you can tolerate even more risk in the hope of getting higher returns.

Spreading the risk is crucial. The ideal (possibly over your lifetime) is to have a bit of everything. Not just a property, not just shares, not just a term deposit, not just bonds. A bit of everything.

But you can start small. For example, think about a managed fund or ETF if you already own your home. Think about buying listed property instruments (REITS) if you already have shares but can’t afford an investment property.

Basically, don’t just buy a bunch of super cute high heels but then never have any good flats you can walk in.

Risk in a nutshell

So here are the takeaways you should know about risk:

Risk is a part of life, and investing. But if you stay away from crazy, get-rich-quick, too-good-to-be-true investments, you can tolerate and manage risk effectively.

There is also risk in doing nothing. Letting your money sit there and track inflation is a risk, because you risk your future returns and wealth.

So don’t be scared of risk – because the other side of it is reward. Imagine if you never took the risk of drinking too much, wearing too little and partying too hard – what fun stories would you have to remember? Investing is just like that, but with less booze.

Photo credit: Aaron Perkins

 

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