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The Events That Changed the Australian Housing Market Remembered - 1980s to Today

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Last week I started to take a very brief look at the social landscape of some major events and trends that have influenced the Australian housing since the end of the second World War.

Like any other market, housing does not function in isolation. Far from it, housing in fact reflects all of the social, economic, political and demographic trends that drive society.

The housing market is one of the most enduring reflections of our collective desires and goals and so it’s no surprise that events as different as the stock market crash of 1987 or the arrival of jumbo jets all impact the housing market. And influence where we live, how we see our homes and even the design and material we use. These events also drive market sentiment often inflating or deflating demand.

This week I’m going to continue these themes, and while it’s impossible to even attempt to pick up all, or even a fraction of the issues and trends, there a few interesting events and trends I’m going to highlight.

Harking back to the stock market crash of 1987 as the starting point, those events might well have caused a complete U-turn in our thinking about what ‘home’ was, and the crash even influenced some design trends that are still with us today.

After the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s, many of us can remember the line ‘greed is good’ from the 1987 movie Wall Street, where Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko said, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” This gave us an insight into the boom mentality of the period.

However, as we came into the 1990s, as greed started to unravel, home became a sanctuary and it became a place of security and safety and this was reflected in a strong desire for homeownership.

Around 1987-89 the term ‘Cocooning’ became a catch-cry from futurist Faith Popcorn. The idea was a desire for a cosy and perfect home environment, away from the influences of a madding world.

On the home front this drove the increased use of gourmet frozen foods, soft furniture, investment services, and comfort foods that reminded consumers of their adolescence, as examples of cocooning. Popcorn also suggested less involvement in social and political issues as a downside of cocooning.

However, in August 1991 the arrival of the internet would have a huge impact on every aspect of society and that included a massive sway over the entire housing market. The internet would impact how we market homes, find a home, where and how we get finance, design our homes and even have the weekly grocery delivered. It is of course a topic in itself that continues to have an impression on the market today.

But leaving aside the internet, from the late 1980s and well into the late 1990s, the desire to own a home and create a place of personal and family safety and sanctuary helped to fuel our national obsession of home-renovation. And while affordability also played its part in this national pastime, renovation was all about creating our ideal home, even if on a budget and with the help of many trips to Bunnings.

It was also a time that continued a retreat away from the excesses of the 1980s as minimalism became very popular as we turned away from the extreme colour frenzies of previous decades.

Colours were highlighted by crisp white walls and timber took over from carpets along with shades of blue-greens, pale ochre, mild terracotta and colours became pure and far less abrasive.

The trend towards inner-city living continued to grow strongly and by the mid 1990s warehouse living was the very height of inner-city housing trends. For those not content with renovating colonial cottages or terraces, warehousing was the big-thing and a number of very large inner-city industrial and warehouse building were converted into apartments, as an early wave of apartment living started to take hold.

However, the events of 9/11, with the attacks on the USA in September 2001, would also have a direct and much more deeply felt and lasting impact on the housing market. Like the arrival of the internet, 9/11 is a big topic beyond the reach of my comments here, but 9/11 did trigger a stronger reaction beyond the earlier cocooning trend I’ve already mentioned. Homeowners looked for greater security and softer more romantic interiors, designs and finishes.

Moving towards 2000, our Australian love affair with the outdoors remained as strong as ever and that’s despite the fact that we had moved away from the dominance of the ¼ acre block and more into townhouse and medium and high-density apartment living.

The desire for outdoors spaces would impact the design of apartments directly driving demand for well-considered private balcony space and areas such as roof top gardens.

The status of the local baristas was also on the rise as apartment dwellers also sought the relief of extra living space via the patronage of the local café and its footpath seating.

The appeal of open-plan living also started to make an even bigger impact during the late 1990s and well into the 2000s.

Open plan living not only influenced house design, but it also impacted apartments where the closed-off kitchen became a relic of the past. This helped in making open plan living for apartments very popular and design trends responded with high quality finishes, including the wider use of stone surfaces and elegant appliances.

Finally, as the first decade of the 2000s started to fade, climate change was about to have an impact and we are only just starting to feel the full force of this shift in consumer sentiment. Solar panels are now common or even mandatory in some areas while, all homeowners and buyers are now very aware of how their homes impact the environment.

This trend is impacting design and materials and the location of homes. However, the trend towards smaller households and blended households are two other social trends set to continue and impact the market in a very big way.

We will also continue to see homes developed with a mix of small-block designs and more high-density apartment developments. These will all have a very fluid approach to design and materials, while both personal and financial security are set to remain important as the internet starts to re-shape cities and how we live.

However, as urban areas grow rapidly and even as mortgage rates continue to fall to who knows what level, access to finance and a mix of supply including some level of affordable homes, may well require completely new standards of planning, design and materials for the next 10-20 years.

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Peter Chittenden

Managing Director | Residential


Sydney CBD

My professional knowhow stems from an extensive career in Residential property development, project marketing, site acquisition and property valuation.

I rejoined Colliers International 11 years ago as Managing Director, and since then I have worked to grow my team and our Residential division by more than 300%.

Across the country we have successfully launched and sold over 100 Residential projects, and we have played an instrumental role in every aspect of these successes for our clients.

I have built a team that offers the complete end to end service for our clients and customers alike, from the site aquisition right through to the sale and settlement of every last apartment. 

My 30+ years of experience in real estate, and genuine passion for property has seen me involved across numerous key industry bodies and groups, as well as the establishment of my own thought leading blog, with over 4000 followers from within the industry. 

Prior to my time at Colliers International, I held the position of National Sales and Marketing Manager for Stockland Apartments. During his time I launched and managed a national portfolio of major projects and led a large national sales and marketing team. Prior to this, I started and ran my own successful project marketing company, Realm Project Marketing, for three years specialising in large land estates, housing and apartment projects predominantly in NSW, providing a high level of service that extended beyond the traditional sales appointment.

In my earlier role at Colliers International I was the National Director, Residential Land Marketing, where I established a highly successful division which led to the appointment of our business to project market several major estates in Sydney and Melbourne, which commenced long lasting relationships that our business still maintains today. 

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