Whilst property values in the USA, UK and many western European countries have fallen significantly during the global financial crisis - Australian property values have held up relatively well. In fact median house prices in some Australian markets have actually increased during 2009.

It is interesting to note that Australian property prices experienced some 'correction' whilst prices in other western countries continued to climb precipitously in the lead-up to the Global Financial Crisis. In 1999 the Sydney median house price was $295,000 and a peak was experienced in 2004 when the median Sydney price reached $596,000. Today it is around $566,000.

There are many factors that influence property prices in any free market. These include underlying demand and supply, as well as interest rates, and government policy and regulation. Australian property prices have experienced upwards pressure from all these sources over the last 24 months. These factors have helped to avoid a significant fall in values in Australia.

Ongoing Demand For Australian Property

There is a net increase in demand for housing in Australia. The largest source of this demand is from people migrating to Australia. From 2007 to 2008, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that Australia's population grew by over 400,000 people (or 1.9% of total population). Over 60% of this increase was from overseas migration to Australia.

Kamal Sehgal

More anecdotally, there is also an ongoing structural shift in Australia's household composition, towards fewer occupants per dwelling. That is, there are increasing numbers of single-occupant and two-occupant dwellings.

Australia's net migration inflow and the move to fewer occupants per dwelling are providing an ongoing structural demand for housing in Australia. This demand, from new homeowners and renters, puts an upward pressure on rents and property prices.

Supply Disequlibrium

A large proportion of Australia's population is housed in its capital cities and on the eastern seaboard, from Melbourne to Sydney and north to Queensland's Sunshine Coast. Whilst Australia is one of the largest countries in the world, there are significant constraints on the availability of land for new housing in these most populated areas. The result, in places like Sydney, has been a trend towards higher density housing, comprising apartments and townhouses in the inner suburbs and smaller house lots in the newer suburbs, further from the city.

The costs associated with new housing development are large, because state governments and local authorities require developers to fund local infrastructure. These 'on-costs', on top of the cost of the actual building, reduce the developers' profit margins and are either passed on to the end-consumer through higher prices, or result in projects being shelved as uneconomic.

Banks and other financial institutions have also dramatically decreased their lending to Australian builders and property developers, resulting in fewer new houses and apartments being constructed.

Low Interest Rates and Government Policies

Historically low borrowing rates, through cheaper mortgage rates, have helped maintain a floor on Australian property prices. There has also been some switching of investments by some Australians following the start of the Global Financial Crisis, from equity markets into real estate, which is often perceived as being less risky.

In addition, the government has provided financial assistance to eligible Australians to buy their first home. This has had a direct impact on property prices up to around $600,000, and less directly on the rest of the marketplace as other homeowners upgrade their homes.

Where to from here?

The RBA has already increased interest rates in Australia by 0.25%. And the government has started to wind back its first home owner grants. Whilst these factors have had an upward influence on prices over the last 18 months, no one is forecasting a drop in house prices in Australia as a result of these two changes.

Australia's demand and supply imbalance is anticipated to continue. Australia has an ongoing policy of encouraging overseas migration, which continues to outnumber Australia's natural population growth (i.e. births in Australia). And there are no structural changes known to be in the pipeline to dramatically increase the supply of new housing in Australia's most populated centres.

Some commentators regard Australia's property prices as too high relative to affordability and relative to the price falls in other countries during the Global Financial Crisis. This may be over-simplistic, however, if attention is not paid to the underlying demand and supply factors influencing house prices in Australia.