How seriously should property investors take recent warnings that Australian property prices are 20 per cent to 30 per cent higher than they should be and that there is an impending apartment glut in 2017? Whatever the fundamental basis for these and similar warnings, existing and new property investors need to be aware of the potential downside.

The basic issue is to understand the risks involved with investments already owned or being purchased. While less popular for purchases of listed assets including shares and property trusts as well as managed funds, large levels of borrowing are widely used to help acquire direct property holdings.

This high level of gearing helps to drive up property prices in good times such as the present and down when markets turn down, for example due to increased levels of vacancies and/or falling rents. Currently, strong foreign buying interest, low interest rates and a shortage of available stock is forcing and encouraging new investors to bid up prices.

While it may be some time off, a similar downward ratchet in prices will start when interest rates rise again and when new housing developments result in an oversupply in the major locations. Compared with share market falls which can be brutal and swift, downward property price movements are generally protracted as sellers holding out for higher prices ultimately are forced to lower their expectations.

A special feature of the apartment market can, however, result in distressed forced sales. This is when a large number of off-the-plan sales negotiated before or during construction fall through. A recent example of this occurring is the setback in the Canberra apartment market due to over-supply and reduced public sector employment opportunities.

In this situation, a significant percentage of off-the-plan buyers were either unable or unwilling to complete their purchases. The resulting forced sales depressed asset valuations and made it more difficult for heavily geared purchasers to obtain credit to meet their commitments.

The key message for individual investors is to be aware of these and other risks before entering into off-the-plan contracts. While one benefit of off-the-plan purchases is what can often be a lengthy time lag before money is required to complete the purchase, this can be a negative if personal circumstances change or property valuations fall before the settlement date..

The chances of both of these changes increase with the amount of time before completion. The risks are also greater in situations such as the present time when contracts are entered into in a buoyant market. So even if the warnings of problems ahead don’t prove accurate, they are a timely reminder to avoid becoming over-committed to a future large heavily geared property purchase.

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Posted by Daryl Dixon – The Age on 30th August, 2014