Real Estate

Australia property boom shows signs of tipping point as prices may cool

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Australia's property prices appear set to come off the boil after a long run up, with analysts pointing to signs the market is turning.

Toh Shaowei, director for research and strategy for global real estate at UBS Asset Management, said Australia's property market is at a "tipping point."

"Investment demand in Australia is higher than domestic demand," with domestic buyers getting priced out, he said Monday.

But he noted that in many markets, particularly Melbourne and Sydney -- two key destinations for foreign investors -- the buyers aren't leasing out their units.

"They're just waiting and hoping that the music doesn't end and they just continue to bank on capital appreciation. It's not going to work," Toh said, citing expectations of more government restrictions aimed at dampening investment demand. "At some point in time, I think we will start to see that prices are going to contract."

Houses stand by the waterfront as commercial buildings stand in the distance in Sydney, Australia, on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.
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Prices in some cities have become distinctly unaffordable. The most recent Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey showed that Australia was second only to Hong Kong on a list of the most unaffordable places to live, with dwelling prices playing a big part in the calculation. Demographia data for the third quarter of 2015 showed the median housing price in Sydney was 12.2 times more than the median annual household income, up from 9.8 in all of 2014. In Melbourne, the median home price was 9.7 times more than the median income, up from 8.2 in all of 2014.

The government has taken some steps to cool the market, such as limiting the growth in lending to property investors, which spurred banks to raise interest rates on mortgages for those borrowers. Efforts to crackdown on foreign buyers who breached ownership rules limiting them to only buying new properties, among other restrictions, have also helped to cool the market.

There are already some signs Australia's property market is beginning to slow. For the fourth quarter of last year, the weighted average property prices of Australia's eight capital cities edged up just 0.2 percent on-quarter, according to government data.

For Sydney's market, prices were actually down 1.6 percent over the same period, although the city still saw prices rise 13.9 percent last year.

Some analysts are skeptical that prices can continue to rise.

Sydney, Australia
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"The fundamentals suggest that the ride is more likely to come to a gradual halt than pick up speed again," Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics, said in a note last week.

For one, Dales noted that the impact of recent rises in mortgage rates hasn't been felt yet. He noted that the number of housing finance commitments to owner occupiers in January fell 3.9 percent on-month, while the annual growth rate of the value of loans to investors fell 14.8 percent in January.

Dales also noted that over the past six months, sentiment toward the housing market has deteriorated dramatically. The share of households saying that real estate is a good place to put savings has fallen to a four-year low of 14.7 percent, compared with a 10-year high of 28.2 percent in last year's third quarter, he noted, citing data gathered quarterly for the Westpac MI consumer sentiment survey.

That consistent with his forecast that Australia's house price inflation may fall all the way to zero over the next six to 12 months.

—Saheli Roy Choudhury contributed to this article.

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—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1