The New Zealand Herald’s cover story last Friday was quite sensational: “Homeowners in Auckland’s fringe saving up to $50,000 a year“. But while the eye-grabbing headline was worthy of clickbait merchants like Buzzfeed, the underlying analysis was not so good.
Here’s the key point of the article:
Bayleys calculated the first-year mortgage repayment costs for different suburbs based on median house prices from the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ) and the ANZ variable rate of 6.74 per cent.
It found the annual cost of servicing a mortgage for a median priced Orakei or Remuera home ($1.35 million) was $84,060 in the first year.
In Pukekohe, where the median price of a home is $500,000, the annual mortgage repayment in the first year would be $31,128.
Even factoring in the $4032 annual cost of commuting from Pukekohe to the CBD by train on the At Hop card system – as well as the $768 public transport cost from Orakei to the city – living in the southern suburb was about $50,000 cheaper.
This is not entirely wrong. Housing costs do tend to decline as you get further out from the centre, while average transport costs tend to increase. That’s exactly what I found in a research paper I wrote on the topic last year. But it’s not entirely correct, either. Bayleys and the Herald have made two elementary errors in their analysis.
First, they’ve chosen a misleading measure of housing costs. House prices aren’t a realistic measure of the true cost of living at a point in time, as they are influenced by a range of short-term and long-term factors. In particular, when you buy a home, you are actually buying three very different things:
- A place to live right now
- A place to live later, when you have paid off the mortgage
- An asset that may appreciate in value (i.e. you’re buying the potential for capital gains).
In other words, looking only at house prices is like arbitrarily including the cost of Kiwisaver into your housing costs.
My intuition is that rental costs are a better indicator of housing costs. They’re certainly less volatile, as I found in a recent paper that I co-authored on the relationship between rents and prices in Auckland. One of the key findings in that paper was that rents were quite low relative to prices in inner-city and coastal suburbs. As the following maps shows, median rents are only around 1/3 to 1/2 of median mortgage repayments in Remuera:
It’s not as though data on rents isn’t available. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment publishes quarterly data on average rents for new tenancies, broken down by suburb, dwelling type, and number of bedrooms. So let’s take a look at that data instead. According to MBIE’s data, the average weekly rent for a three-bedroom house was:
- $754 in Remuera (or $39,000 per annum)
- $406 in Pukekohe (or $21,000 per annum)
However, there were a number of cheaper options available in Remuera, and the inner suburbs in general. Going down to two bedrooms would reduce your rent by $9,000 per annum – a viable and attractive option for many households – and looking for flats or apartments would save even more money.
But basically, looking at the rental data shows that most of the cost of buying in Remuera is not related to housing costs per se – you’re actually buying the expectation of capital gains. The rent data shows that it’s still possible to save money on housing costs by living further out, but the magnitude of savings is far lower.
Which brings me to a second major flaw in the Herald’s analysis: They have only accounted for the monetary costs of commuting further into the city centre and completely excluded the value of people’s time. A quick look at AT’s journey planner shows that the train trip from Pukekohe to Britomart takes about 70 minutes, while a public transport trip from Remuera to Britomart takes 20-30 minutes depending upon whether you’re closer to the train station or a bus route.
In other words, the Herald has assumed that people don’t mind spending an extra 80-100 minutes commuting every day. They haven’t even tried to account for the cost of wasted time. Most researchers and transport economists disagree with this approach. Here, for example, is a discussion of the subject from Charles Montgomery’s great book The Happy City:
[University of Zurich economists] Stutzer and Frey found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love…
Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, explained the commuting paradox to me this way:
“Most good things and bad things become less good and bad over time as we adapt to them. However, it is much easier to adapt to things that stay constant than things that change. So we adapt quickly to the joy of a larger house because the house is exactly the same size every time we come in the front door. But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every day is a slightly new form of misery, with different people honking at us, different intersections jammed with accidents, different problems with weather, and so on.”
In short, the Herald’s analysis has:
- Overstated the real magnitude of financial savings from living in Pukekohe vs Remuera by a factor of three – a comparison of rental data suggest that the financial savings are actually $16,000 per annum or less
- Ignored the non-monetary costs of commuting extremely long distances, which makes people miserable. All else being equal, people should be willing to pay more to live in the areas which have the best job accessibility.
My advice, if you are choosing where to live in Auckland, is to disregard the advice of real estate spruikers such as Bayleys and the Herald, and take a more objective and comprehensive look at the topic using the affordability.org.nz app developed by my co-worker Alex Raichev. The app provides information on a much broader range of factors, including the rents, the monetary and time cost of commuting, and the costs of car ownership. Here’s a sample:
And, as always, my advice to the Herald is to check the facts more comprehensively before committing this sort of thing to print.