Australian Housing A Very Brief Memoire
Over the next two weeks I’m going to take a very brief journey through the landscape of Australian housing, refreshing my memory of some of the key factors that have helped shape today’s market.
The housing market is one of the most enduring reflections of our collective communities and tucked away in this brief journey there might also be some useful pointers to the market’s future direction.
With reasonable clarity it is possible to suggest that the birth of the ‘great Australian dream’ took place in the years immediately after World War 11 came to an end and the spirit of change was upon us. However, looking back to the mid 1940s from todays perspective ‘home’ was a very different place.
The concept of home was characterized by the idea that ‘a woman’s place was in the home’ and that a happy husband was the principal marker of what made the perfect home. This was reflected in how homes, and everything to do with home life, was characterized and marketed.
Perhaps less controversial the construction of houses started to feature plywood, fiberglass and plastic-laminates with open plan designs, while a more profound fact was that Australia was about to start its mass intake of immigrants.
The new Holden was about to become common as most new houses would be built on ¼ acre blocks in more distant suburbs. There was an urgent need for new houses and our love affair with the ¼ acre block was about to take off at breakneck speed. The foundations that would shape our housing market were laid and would endure for many decades.
However, as the 1940s came to an end there were already questions emerging around the quality and design of our houses. When the average home would have a budget of around £2000 the use of an architect’s services was not common.
In response some state governments tried to help with the introduction of architect designed small house from standard plans. Still today various planning bodies wrestle with the same problem, quality housing and quality design while racing to meet demand at an affordable price. And that sounds very familiar in 2019.
By the early 1950s and on a less thorny note, new houses were starting to feature bathrooms that had bold bright colours. The Victa lawn mower was also invented in 1952 at a time when the ¼ acre block had well and truly assumed prominence in the Australian housing market.
The ‘Victa’ was invented in the backyard of Mervyn Victor Richardson in Sydney’s Concord and helped to tame many a ¼ acre block for decades.
As the 1950s started to come to an end we had a housing market dominated by colour, new materials, Holden cars, the ¼ acre block and the Victa lawn mower. Then as we came into the 1960s Australia was facing a sunny and prosperous and optimistic future.
The housing market reflected this trend as potential buyers started the weekend routine of visiting display homes on the weekend. We also started to associate our homes with everything ‘cool’ and that included an appetite for European style from countries like Italy or Scandinavia.
There were still some traditional ties to the staider interiors of English design but also with the contrasting colours of Carnaby Street, and we had not heard of any sort of environmental concerns, optimism was the rigour driving the housing market and there’s one great example ‘the built-in bar’.
In the early 1960s the built-in-bar soon became the ultimate in living room must-haves and the kitchen island arrived to help define open plan living spaces, the role of the family dining room would soon start to change. The plain floorboard once a mark of economy, was giving way to wall to wall carpet as people enjoyed the benefits of a stronger economy.
However, as the 1960s came to an end the design of homes that ‘featured everything you want’ included a list of features such as: a carport for two cars, spacious verandas, a discrete dining area, spacious living room with high ceilings, a kitchen with an island bar, three bedrooms including a mater with it’s own bath dressing room and finally a rear deck and landscaped garden and all with a main house area of around 150 sqm.
As Australia entered the 1970s and interest rates were near 7.25%, the housing market started to change, there was a very early turning away from the suburban sprawl of the 1950s and 1960s and early gentrification has started in areas like Sydney’s Paddington and South Yarra.
By the end of the decade the Jumbo Jet had arrived to change air travel for ever and home interiors reflected the Australian appetite for travel.
In the 1980s many aspects of how Australians lived was about to change. The 1970s gave way to a period where people started to ‘power-dress’ their homes and Australians began to shun the suburbs and city-infill living became much more common with the popularity of the townhouse heralding a big shift in what was ‘the Australian dream’.
However, it was the stock market crash in October 1987 that would eventually see the housing market change as ‘bling’ turned to bust, although it actually took about two years before things started to get very nasty for property.
Housing market conditions accelerated after the share market crash and coincided with mortgage rates reducing from 15% in September 1987 down to 13.5% in June 1988.
However, by mid-1989 mortgage rates increased to a high of 17% and in 1990 property markets stumbled, and the next 20-years would look very different and distant from previous decades.