Prices are rising and auction clearances are on the up but behind the headlines not everyone is happy, writes Nicole Lindsay.
Real estate agent Craig Stephens says he's having a "funny spring" out in Melbourne's western suburbs. The so-called boom exploding in other parts of Melbourne and Sydney has yet to make itself felt in the west, despite the presence of investors.
"It looks like a late spring for us. The election has acted like a bit of an interest rate cut and there's been a real spike of interest since the election. But we think there's going to be a wave of listings to hit in November rather than October," says Stephens, a former stockbroker who runs the family real estate agency Jas H Stephens.
It's a different story in Sydney's outer north, where Belle Property agent Nick Bedford was caught on the hop at the start of the year when the market suddenly picked up after the Reserve Bank cut interest rates in October and December 2012.
"We didn't forecast this happening. It started in February. Winter is usually slower but it hasn't slowed all year," Bedford says. He says the area where he operates, in Beecroft and Cheltenham near the Pennant Hills Golf Course, has been doing well all year but not at runaway prices.
The family home he sold at 9 Welham Street in Beecroft last weekend attracted three bidders and sold at its reserve price of $2.2 million. "That's the high end. There's only been one other sale above $2 million this year, but everything's going well, everything's transacting," he says.
In Sydney's inner west around Strathfield, Haus Real Estate's Reece Theedam says he's struggling to get enough stock to supply skittish buyers.
"We've had some ridiculous results, but we've had some hits and misses too. My question is, would there be the same clearance rate if there was a 20 per cent increase in stock?" Theedam says.
Melbourne's inner suburbs of Brunswick and North Fitzroy and the traditional leafy eastern suburbs from Kew to Malvern are doing well after more than two years in the doldrums. Bayside has also recovered from a very stale patch.
But for every runaway auction with a sale 30 per cent above its reserve, there are plenty selling close to the mark or passing in and selling shortly after. These last are still counted as sales in the auction clearance rate.
Buoyant auction clearance rates have underpinned price growth in Melbourne and Sydney this year, but instead of triggering a sigh of relief at the market's return to health, there are fearful cries of a boom and surging house prices.
Agents are having none of it.
"Adjectives like 'solid' are more accurate than 'surging'," says Paul Castran of Castran Gilbert, a Melbourne agency that sells everything from development sites and apartments to family homes.
"The boat has left the dock and we are just at the beginning of a new cycle," Castran says.
Biggin & Scott agent Angelos Stefanis says this is just a "normal healthy market, though a bit patchy in places".
Economists are the unlikely hailers of this purported boom, concerned about the growing activity of investors, the new force of self-managed superannuation funds (SMSF) and the return of property spruikers to the market, all stoked by historically low interest rates.
The Reserve Bank is worried that investors, some using their super funds, could spike the whole market, paying too much for property and bearing unrealistic expectations of capital growth.
But there are several other factors at play in the current market, including low levels of stock and expatriate and overseas buyers who are getting a 10 per cent or more discount on their purchases since the fall in the Australian dollar during the year.
Only 12 months ago, clearance rates were below 60 per cent and median dwelling values were treading water. The Reserve Bank slashed the cash rate twice in late 2012 and twice again in mid-2013 to help prime the economy, and it worked a treat on the property market.
Sydney clearance rates have been at or above 80 per cent for most of the year and Melbourne's have hovered around 70 per cent and are rising. Analysts RP Data reckon Sydney property prices have climbed 8.2 per cent in the past 12 months and those in Melbourne 5.3 per cent.
But stock levels remain low. RP Data research released during the week shows the total number of properties on the market is down 28.9 per cent in Sydney and by 13.8 per cent in Melbourne from the same time last year.
The reluctance of buyers to commit to a sale from late 2010 to 2012 was matched by vendors, who held back from putting their properties on the market during a period of low clearance rates and falling prices.
While the negative feedback loop has broken this year, agents are still reporting low levels of stock and hope the higher clearance rates will encourage vendors to come back into the market.
Activity at the lower end of the market is making people more confident that they can sell their existing house and upsize to a new property, especially at the $1 million-plus end.
Castran says: "They are buying and selling in the same market. They can buy what they want because it hasn't gone up too much and they can sell their own property."
And while some houses are selling well above their reserve prices, many do not. These rarely get written about it because they are less exciting.
Last weekend, just two bidders fought for a period family home at 15 Goodall Street in East Hawthorn, in Melbourne's leafy eastern suburbs.
The four-bedroom home, close to shops, public transport and private schools, was on the market at $2.42 million and Marshall White auctioneer Antony Woodley knocked it down shortly afterwards for $2.425 million.
While the neighbours were muttering that it was a high price to pay for a house that needed new paint and carpets, it was hardly the kind of cracker auction that makes headlines.
But the return of investors looking for a better return on their money than they can get from the sharemarket or the bank is making headlines, for better and worse.
Castran says investors were
too scared to invest in the past
few years, worried about the
global economy - the US and Greece, in particular - and the uncertainty created by minority government.
"There's more demand again, especially in the sub-$1 million market," Castran says. "First home buyers are always buying but they've got a big stick against them with the investors, so they are getting a bit excited and paying extra to get into the market," he says.
Frank Valentic, from Advantage Property, who acts for investors and home owners buying and selling property, says the number of investors on his books has doubled in the past 12 months.
"People have a herd mentality. When they see the market moving, they want to jump in. Investors were sitting on the fence last year. Home buyers will always need to upsize or downsize, but investors don't have to buy so they are looking at the timing and they see growth now," Valentic says.
About 25 per cent of his investor clients are buying for super funds.
"They are mainly at the lower end of the market, spending around $500,000 depending on the size of their super fund, rather than the family upsizers in the $1 million to $2 million market," he says.
Despite the concerns about the SMSF investors, data released by the Reserve Bank shows they make up a small portion of the market. About 15 per cent of assets held in SMSFs are property, and less than a quarter of that, about $18.5 billion, is residential property.
But spruikers are a problem in the apartment market, Castran says. "I call them racketeers. They take a $400,000 apartment and do a deal with developers to whack a $60,000 commission on to it.
"People have to be careful and do their research," he says.