Property Prices Decline in Melbourne and Sydney – Should I Buy?

After property prices have been going up for quite some time, there seems to be a considerable amount of anxiety in Australia as house prices start to fall. According to Corelogic, so far there have been price declines of about 10% in Sydney and Melbourne. However, this is an average and masks the finding that top-end properties have been declining much more than affordable properties e.g. the average Broadmeadows house in 2017 is $540k and in 2018 it is $560k, a slight increase. However, in Toorak house prices went from $5 million 2017 to $3.4 million in 2018, which is a 30% decline and $1.6 million wiped out of the average Toorak house.

Toorak house and unit prices as of February 2019, source: realestate.com.au

If you own a home, does this mean it is a good time to sell it? Alternatively, is it a good time to buy?

My answer is that I don’t know. In my opinion, it is rarely a good idea to try to time the market as studies show that most people fail to pick the bottoms and the tops. The better strategy is diversification. One form of diversification is diversification into different types of assets e.g. splitting your wealth across e.g. stocks, bonds, property, gold and cryptocurrency. However, with property there is little opportunity to diversify because each house is very expensive. The average family home in Melbourne costs about $800k. If you save up a 20% deposit of $160k and right after you buy there is a price decline of 30%, then you’ve lost $240k. Another major problem with expensive property is limited ability to dollar cost average. In a volatile market, you can invest a small amount every fortnight to smooth out the bumps, but this is clearly not possible if you’re borrowing to buy a house.

Will I buy a property?

I have been anti-property for a long time, preferring instead to live at my parents and invest in ETFs. My plan was to live off dividends and eventually use the dividend income to rent a place. When my dividend grew high enough, I’d retire early and travel the world forever, living in Southeast Asia. This plan was hatched during a time when I hated my job.

However, as my salary and dividend income rise, I am having mixed feelings about gallivanting in Southeast Asia for the rest of my life, especially when I am starting to enjoy my work, and I’ve realised that although renting can be cheaper in some suburbs, this does not apply to all suburbs. In many suburbs, it is cheaper to rent, but there are some suburbs where it is cheaper to buy. This depends on a number of factors e.g. rental yield but also how much you earn. The more you earn, the more likely it is that it is cheaper to buy rather than rent. This is because you rent with after-tax income. For example, if you paid zero tax, then if you had a choice between buying a $1 million apartment or renting it for $40k per year then it is preferable to rent because you could invest $1 million in an Australian equity ETF or LIC (e.g. A200, VAS, BKI, or ARG) and earn about 5% dividend yield of $50k per year, use the $40k to rent and have $10k leftover. However, if you were earning enough salary such that you are taxed at 40% (if you earn over $80k then you pay 37% in income tax in addition to a 2% medicare levy so it is approximately 40%) then rather than getting $50k in dividends you’d only be getting $30k after-tax (ignoring franking credits), which is not enough to pay the rent of $40k per year. In this case, it is cheaper to buy.

Although this may vary across different cities, as a simple generalisation, within Melbourne family homes tend to be cheaper to rent whereas units and apartments tend to be cheaper to buy. For example, using Toorak again as an example, the average Toorak house costs $3.43 million whereas it costs $965 per week (about $50k per year) to rent. If you had $3.43 million to afford a home, you’d be better off putting this in an ETF earning say 5% dividend yield of $171k per year. Even after tax and ignoring franking credits you’d have about $16k per year in dividend income. You’d then pay the rent of $50k and have $66k per year extra if you rented.

Home prices vs rent prices in Toorak as of February 2019, source: realestate.com.au

However, this does not apply if you are buying or renting a Melbourne CBD unit (which is where I’d rather live). A unit in the CBD is $484k to buy and $530 per week ($28k per year) to rent. Putting $484k into an ETF earning 5% dividend yield would only give you $24k before tax, which is not enough to afford the $28k rent. Given that it is cheaper to buy ignoring tax, it will definitely be cheaper to buy after tax. The higher your marginal tax rate, the more likely it would be that buying is cheaper. However, this analysis ignores the high body corporate fees that apartment owners typically pay. Furthermore, an argument can also be made that Toorak homes are better investments vs CBD apartments. Therefore, it may be worth buying a Toorak home vs an ASX200 ETF as there is some hope that the Toorak home will outperform the ASX200 whereas there is little chance a CBD unit will outperform the ASX200, and this may explain the differences in rental yields.

Melbourne CBD buy vs rent prices as of February 2019, source: realestate.com.au

Arguments for home ownership

As I said, I am considering buying a place of my own. One of the reasons is that I am starting to dislike commuting and would rather walk to work. Another reason is that over time I am starting to dislike living with my parents. Furthermore, buying a place is not that inflexible. Even if I move, retire early, or even dislike the place I live in, I can arrange for a real estate agent to rent it out the apartment and forward any leftover rental income to me, so I can still retire early and live off rental income, although rental income will likely be lower compared to dividend income because the real estate agent will take a cut of the rental income as a fee for managing the property. Furthermore, rental yields are typically lower than dividend yields.

Another concern with buying a property is debt. I believe that it is important to always be ready to retire because you never know when you’ll be fired or if you’ll hate your job. Buying a property usually incurs significant debt, and many people are tied to their jobs because of the mortgage. However, even though I own ETFs now, I still have a small amount of debt via a margin loan. I rationalise this by telling myself that the interest expenses is tax deductible and also in the event of a need to retire early I can easily sell off ETFs to pay off all the debt. This idea can be applied to property as well. If you buy an affordable property (e.g. $300k to $400k) and save up a large deposit (e.g. 50%) before you buy, even if you are fired you can sell the property and invest the proceeds into high dividend ETFs. Another alternative if you have enough equity in the property is to simply rent it out. If the equity is high in the property, the rental income should be higher than the interest cost as well as property management fee, which makes this a passive income stream similar to dividend ETFs.

Another option is to sell all my ETFs and buy a place outright, but I’ve decided against this idea because then I’d forego dividend income as well as trigger capital gains tax. When I buy ETFs, my plan is to hold it forever. Ideally, I’d like to hold any asset I buy forever and live off investment income (with the obvious exceptions being gold and cryptocurrency).

Conclusion

In my opinion, the best test of financial independence is to ask yourself how long will you survive if you have no job. If the answer is “forever” then you are financially independent.

Right now, in my thirties, I generate about $20k per year in dividend income, which in my opinion is enough to live a reasonable lifestyle in Southeast Asia e.g. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Bali or Sihanoukville. If I really hated my job now or if I were fired, I could fly to Southeast Asia, live there for a few decades, and then come back to Australia to collect my superannuation.

However, even though I feel I could do it, I don’t feel comfortable relying solely on $20k per year in dividend income, and as I said, even though I hated my job many years back, I am starting to enjoy it more and more, so my plan is to stay in Australia and continue to invest and build more dividend income. However, if my plan is to stay in Australia for longer, I’ll need to consider my comfort, and two areas of discomfort in my life now are living with others and commuting. Basically being around other people bothers me. If I live with others, I have little privacy, and if I am on a packed train, it bothers me as well. Being at work with others bothers me if I am around the wrong people. The key is in having enough financial independence to allow you to have more say or control over the type of people you surround yourself with. Something I have learned about myself is that I am very much a people person. If I am around the wrong people, I feel extremely unhappy and depressed, but being around the right people can make a huge difference to your mood.

Buying a place in or close to the city will cut my commute, allowing me to walk to work, and it will also allow me to live by myself. If I save up enough cash deposit and buy a reasonably cheap place, even if I do decide to retire early, I’d still be able to “positively gear” the property by renting it out and generate passive rental income, which when coupled with my dividend income can boost my early retirement living standards.

Is Salary Sacrificing into Super Worth It?

Because I live in Australia, there are some financial ideas that are unique to Australians e.g. franking credits, negative gearing, and superannuation.

Firstly, what is superannuation? Superannuation (or super) is a retirement fund similar to the US’s 401k. When your employer pays you, they are required by law to put 9.5% of your salary into your super. This super is locked up until you are old (about 60 to 70).

Why salary sacrifice into super? Compared to many other countries, income tax is high in Australia. Any amount you earn over $37k has a 32.5% income tax rate applied to it. If you earn over $90k then any amount over $90k attracts a 37% income tax rate. However, suppose you earned $100k per year and you arranged with your employer to salary sacrifice $10k into your super fund, then this means that rather than paying $3700 tax on that $10k and receiving $6300 in your bank account, you instead have that $10k go into your super fund and where it is taxed at only 15% i.e. you pay $1500 tax. This means you save $2200 per year assuming you salary sacrifice $10k per year.

If the tax benefits are so good, why not salary sacrifice everything into super? The answer is that there is a limit. The amount your employer puts in (9.5%) and the amount you salary sacrifice cannot exceed $25k per year. Take the example of someone who earns $100k. This figure does not include super. The employer is paying $9500 (9.5% of $100k) per year into superannuation by law. However, if the worker wants to top this up by salary sacrificing, they should simply find the difference between $25k and the compulsory contribution amount ($9500) and then salary sacrifice this amount. In this case, the person earning $100k should salary sacrifice $15500 per year to fully take advantage of the tax benefits. If you get paid every fortnight, simply divide this by 26 and therefore salary sacrifice $596 per fortnight. In my opinion, you should always salary sacrifice a little bit below the limit because your salary will likely increase bit by bit over time. If the amount you salary sacrifice is exactly $25k then the next salary increase (e.g. due to inflation correction) can tip you over the $25k mark, which leads to punitive taxes applied to you. Therefore, I recommend aiming for $23k or $24k just to be safe.

Using the example of earning $100k per year, if you are salary sacrificing $10k per year you’d save $2200 per year. If you salary sacrifice to the max then you’d be making $3410 per year.

Assuming you save $3410 per year over 30 year, then assuming 8% per annum returns, you’d have $250k.

What are the downsides of salary sacrificing into super?

Even though there are tax benefits, the main disadvantage of salary sacrificing into your super fund is that you do not get access to this money until you are around 60 to 70. However, there are hardship provisions in superannuation that allows you to access your super under severe financial hardship. Given that I am a long-term investor, I normally buy and hold investments forever. I will only ever sell if there is severe financial hardship. Therefore, keeping money in super doesn’t make much difference. For most people who do not salary sacrifice into super, their main reason is that they need to pay the mortgage, but they are simply building up savings in their house, and because houses have high transaction costs, chances are they will only sell the house under severe financial hardship as well.

One common argument people use against superannuation is that the “rules can change.” That is, while your money is locked up in superannuation, the government could change the rules and e.g. increase taxes on it. However, this is not a good argument. The risk of government changing rules or legislation apply to all investments. For example, if you do not salary sacrifice and invest in property and shares outside of super, the upcoming proposed changes to negative gearing, capital gains tax and franking credits will affect you. Unless you invest in offshore accounts or cryptocurrency, you are at risk of “rules changing,” and even if you invest in, say, offshore accounts, then offshore jurisdictions are subject to changes in legislation, and cryptocurrency protocols can change, leading to “hard forks.” You can never escape the risk of legislative or protocol amendment. The only way to mitigate this risk is to diversify.

The key downside of salary sacrificing into super is that you do not get passive income, which impacts on your ability to be finacnially independent. If you salary sacrifice $10k into super, that $10k does not produce dividends that go into your bank account for spending. It simply accrues in the super fund and accumulates until you are, say, 60. This means that if you seek to be financially independent quickly or retire very early, salary sacrificing into super can be a problem. However, there are workarounds.

The four percent rule

The four percent rule states that when you retire you spend 4% per year. Suppose you retire with $1 million in net worth. You simply spend $40k per year. Now suppose you had $500k in super and $500k outside super. One strategy is to continue to use the 4% rule but to retire at a time such that you can use the 4% rule and then time it so that you run out of your $500k outside of super just before you have access to superannuation.

Coast FI or Barista FI

Another option is called “coast FI” or “barista FI” which are terms used among the online FIRE community (financial indepence retire early). Basically you can salary sacrifice to the max early in your career such that you have, say, $200k in super by age 30. Assuming 8% per annum growth, then this $200k in super will become $2 million by age 60 assuming no extra contributions. Therefore, through aggressive early savings, your 60s are covered. Having $2 million when you are 60 is more than enough. However, because you have locked up a considerable amount of money into super, you may live a lower standard of living up until you are 60.

One solution to this suggested by the FIRE community is “coast FI” which sadly has nothing to do with the Gold Coast. Rather, you coast to your 60s by taking it easy and doing easy jobs (e.g. a barista, although based on what I have seen being a barista is quite difficult). However, in my opinion, this is not a good strategy because even easy work is still work, and there is no guarantee that you will be able to find easy work in the upcoming age of automation. The whole point of financial independence is to enable you to live without a job so that you can pursue whatever you are passionate about.

Although there are problems with barista FI, the insight that barista FI brings up is that you don’t need to retire early. Once you live off dividends, rather than retire and stop working, you can keep working but simply don’t work as hard. You don’t need to work as a barista, but you can work the current job you work but simply work in a more relaxed manner. This may mean you spend more time at work chatting to coworkers or it may mean you work part-time and take more holidays. A more mainstream term for this is “semi-retirement.” Another option is to change jobs and do something you are passionate about e.g. you may build online social enterprises that help the world.

The solution to the superannuation dilemma

Superannuation presents many Australians with a complicated dilemma. Either you salary sacrifice and increase your wealth thanks to tax benefits but lock your money up unitl you are very old, or you do not salary sacrifice, reduce your wealth, but reach financial independence faster.

In my opinion, you should salary sacrifice to the max early in your career. However, to accelerate your chances of becoming financially independent as fast as possible, live as minimalist a life as possible (e.g. living with roommates or with parents, riding bikes or taking public transport, never having children, etc) and then with your money outside of super apply the Peter Thornhill approach by investing all your money into high dividend paying Australian equity ETFs and LICs (e.g. VHY, IHD, RARI, EINC, RINC, BKI, AFI, and ARG). Because Australian equities are blessed with high dividend yield and franking credits, this coupled with a highly minimalist lifestyle will allow you to quickly achieve financial independence. To use some example numbers, the cost of a sharehouse found via Gumtree or Facebook is about $700 per month. The cost of meal replacement drink Aussielent (which I use as the basis for the cost of food) is $256 per month. Then if you get a bike then you can cover all necessities for $1000 per month or $12,000 per year. Assuming dividend yield of 7% then this means you need to save up $170k. Adding income tax and offsetting it with franking credits, this means you’ll only need to save up about $200k in high dividend ETFs or LICs to be able to be financially independent. After you have $200k, you can start to diversify your portfolio away from Australian equity to reduce risk (e.g. into bonds and international equities). Then over time, as your dividend income increases, you can slowly increase your living standards, e.g. live by yourself rather than with housemates or parents. You can eat tastier food rather than Aussielent, etc. However, for the sake of financial indpendence, your living expenses should not exceed your passive income because you must minimise the amount of time you are dependent on your job.

Because you salary sacrifice into super, there is a good chance a large chunk of your net worth will be in illiquid assets, so your living standards will be low up until you are 60 and then suddenly after 60 you will have a very high standard of living.

Retirement (or semi-retirement) in Southeast Asia

If you salary sacrifice into super, you will have a considerable amount of money in your 60s or 70s, but before you are old, you will likely live a minimalist lifestyle assuming you live off dividends. A way to increase your standard of living is to retire early in Southeast Asia where the cost of living is lower. Before I spoke about how $1000 per month is enough to live a very minimalist lifestyle in Australia, but in many Southeast Asian cities e.g. Chiang Mai, Ubud or Sihanoukville, $1000 per month can afford a more comfortable standard of living. You can retire early and then come back to Australia in your 60s to collect your superannuation and then retire in Australia. Because Southeast Asia is a bit “rougher” than Australia, younger people in their forties or fifties can tolerate it better, so if you end up retiring early in your forties or fifties living off dividends, you can go to Southeast Asia for retirement and then come back to Australia to cash out your super. One of the benefits of living in Australia is its socialist healthcare system (Medicare) that provides free medical care for all. This is particularly useful for older people. That being said, if you reach the age of 60 or 70 with net worth of $2 million, that sort of money can buy good healthcare even in e.g. Thailand. Cities such as Bangkok have international-standard private hospitals that many people from all over the world travel to for medical treatment.

Disclosure: I currently own IHD.

Why Retirement is Similar to Marriage

Within the financial independence community, there is a lot of talk about the date when you retire. Many people talk about having e.g. 4 years of work left before they save up enough money to retire.

However, I have heard of many people who retire who end up disliking retirement. Perhaps they realize that they don’t have enough money to to live the life they want to live. Perhaps they realize they are bored without a job.

The entire idea of having a fixed date at which you retire sounds very final and drastic seems very similar to marriage. When you marry someone, you bind yourself to being with someone for the rest of your life under threat of legal and accounting costs. The same applies to retirement. You bind yourself to not working under threat of having to apply for a job again.

What is the alternative to retirement?

Instead of retiring at a fixed point, a more flexible option is to experiment. It reminds me of a famous saying by Deng Xiaoping: “Cross the river by feeling the stones.” Rather than plunging into a raging river, it is better to cautiously and carefully feel for the stones as you cross. Deng used this principle to build modern China. It is always wise to try something at a small scale to see if it works before scaling it up.

An alternative retirement, in my opinion, is simply semi-retirement. Rather than quit your job, simply take a few months off to see how you fare during retirement. Another option is to reduce your hours and work part-time and to pursue projects that interest you rather than force yourself to do work you hate in order to get a promotion.

All this depends on how easily you feel you can find another job. If you have skills that are in demend and feel you can easily find a job again if you change your mind about retirement, quitting your job may not be a big deal. Nevertheless, when you are older, there is a degree of ageism in the workforce, so it always wise to exercise caution. Cross the river by feeling the stones.