If Australia is in a housing crisis, why are there so many vacant homes?


Australia’s property market has experienced unprecedented demand over the past couple of years and despite the market now cooling, rising costs and supply shortages are causing one of the worst housing crises in history.

We’ve heard and read stories about entire families forced to live out of their cars, in campervans, and even tents.

Many have a respectable and reliable income and a rental history to boot.

House Price

But when prices reached an all-time high the surge of investors selling off their properties, and in general to owner-occupiers, forced many renters out of their homes at a time when securing a new rental property is arguably harder than buying one.

So it came as a shock to many to hear that the recently released Census data revealed that while so many are unable to find a home, almost one-in-10 houses were vacant on Census night.

There were nearly 11 million (10,852,208) private dwellings counted in the 2021 Census, up from 950,712 in 2016.

And the data showed that 1,043,776 of those have nobody living in them.

But maybe that shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

Remember the Census was conducted in late August last year when many of us were in lockdown, meaning a lot of Aussies couldn’t go on vacation so there were a lot of holiday homes and Airbnb properties vacant.

It seems that at the time there were also many unoccupied investment properties.

But surprisingly the share of homes that were unoccupied on Census night fell to a 15-year low.

While 10.1% of homes were unoccupied on Census night in 2021, that’s a sharp fall from the 11.2% that were empty in the previous Census in 2016 and is the lowest share of unoccupied properties since 2006.

You see…because a property was vacant on Census night doesn’t really mean it is genuinely empty – people may be in hospital, away on a business trip, or staying in their partner’s house.

Then there are truly unoccupied properties such as those for sale, newly completed homes, or those awaiting demolition.

Interestingly the Census found 58,155 people were living in caravans on Census night and 29,369 were living in houseboats.

Where were all these vacant homes?

Empty homes were more common in regional areas than in capital cities, and the Northern Territory had the greatest proportion of unoccupied dwellings – 12.8 per cent (down from 14.1 per cent in 2016), followed by Tasmania with almost 11.8 per cent (down from 14 per cent in 2016) and Victoria with 11.1 per cent (down from 11.7 per cent in 2016).

The location with the smallest proportion of unoccupied dwellings was the ACT with 6.6 per cent (down from 8.1 per cent in 2016).

The other states had figures around 9 and 10 per cent.


Some more Census Stats

The Census also revealed that the proportion of people who own a home outright dropped to 31.0% in 2021, from 41.6% in 1996.

Longer-term, ABS deputy Australian statistician Teresa Dickinson said the share of homes that are owned with a mortgage, rather than outright, has been growing.

“Over the last 25 years the number of homes owned outright has increased by 10% while the number owned with a mortgage has doubled,” she told a media conference in Canberra.

At a national level, fewer borrowers reported being in mortgage stress – defined as spending more than 30% of their income on mortgage repayments.


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