Property tipped to dive in coal towns

LEADING real estate ethics advocate and former agent Neil Jenman sees at least a 30% decline in property values for Mackay and other Queensland towns strongly tied to the coal mining sector as the job losses mount.
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Neil Jenman

Blair Price

When asked about a real estate bubble in key coal towns of the state, Jenman shot straight from the hip.

“There has been an absurd bubble,” he told International Longwall News. “It has also been one of the most predictable property price boom and busts I have seen in the past 30 to 40 years.

“And anybody – other than somebody who is under the influence of a real estate salesman or spruiker – would be able to see it.

“This is going to be one of those things we look back at in hindsight and say ‘why didn’t we see it?’”

He particularly sees towns such as Blackwater under threat from falling property prices in the wake of job cutbacks that have included BHP Billiton cutting 1100 workers from its coal operations by June.

Jenman added the medium house price in Mackay had overtaken the western suburbs of Sydney.

No stranger to Queensland coal mining towns, Jenman partly grew up in Baralaba, near Moura, which is home to a mine now controlled by Cockatoo Coal following a December purchase from a Peabody Pacific subsidiary.

“Baralaba has had a coal mine that has opened and closed over the last 100 years at regular intervals,” he said.

“Every time the coal mine opens, the town booms; every time the coal mine closes, the land market slumps to the point of being almost non-existent.”

Jenman said you could not give away blocks of land at Baralaba eight to nine years ago and you could have gotten one for nothing if you had paid the outstanding rates.

“Well, blocks of land at Baralaba now are between $50,000 and $70,000,” he said.

The town, which had a population of 259 people in 2001, took off following the reopening of the mine back in 2005 with Jenman saying it was a classic example of the boom-bust nature of the coal industry and property values.

Jenman said any town that had mining as a principal industry was in for a serious shake-out.

Looking at the type of decline in property values, he said some towns would be lucky if they got away with a 30% fall but it could get as high as 50%.

With a rental market that has some houses going for $1000 a week in some coal mining towns, Jenman said the figure of 25% represented a comfortable affordability rate, meaning the percentage of one’s pay that could go to such an expense.

He added that local workers from towns not in the mining industry would be lucky to have 40% of a coal miner’s salary, meaning that a rental property that was $1000 a week could shoot down below $400.

LJ Hooker Mackay partner Des Besanko told ILN he was still unaware of the full effects of BHP’s job cutting announcement this week, but understands many of the contractors (around 770 axed from BHP) were fly-in, fly-out workers so did not affect the economy as such.

He said it was more of an issue for retrenched workers who had set up their families and lives in Mackay, but said there were many infrastructure jobs available for a few years, referencing the Port Abbot development and associated railway construction, along with other infrastructure work in the Mackay district.

On the topic of forced sales, Besanko said there were some mortgage repossession sales at the end of last year, but these involved people affected by the financial and banking side of things.

“I think we most probably expect to see a few people looking to sell up to move to other positions around Australia,” he said.

“So far we were still selling well up to the $450,000 range. Anything above that was starting to slow off, mainly happening before Christmas, where people were starting to tighten their belt.

“People were a bit more concerned about the security in their jobs so they are not going to overstretch themselves right at this time. That is what we have really been seeing happening in the last month or two – people just realigning their expenses.”

Central Highlands Regional Council Mayor Peter Maguire told ILN the job cuts would have impacts on families, certainly in Blackwater.

He said the council was concerned about the flow-on effects on small businesses and other industries as well as the housing market but added it would hurt to see property prices go down a bit in Emerald.

“There is a lot of work still around this area because we are a diversified area community besides the big agricultural sector, even our local government is looking for people all the time,” he said.

“Unfortunately they will not be able to pay the major salaries like the mining industry but there are other opportunities in the region.”

He also said a lot of retrenched workers might not live in the towns and it would not be clear what the impacts are until the council gets the numbers.

Apart from Blackwater, Maguire mainly sees towns out of his jurisdiction such as Moranbah and Dysart as more affected by cutbacks in the state’s coal industry.

He said property prices certainly went up eight or so years ago in Emerald, with blocks fetching between $30,000 and $40,000 and now about $130,000 for 800-900 square metres.

Jenman is an established national commentator on property issues and has had his views presented in A Current Affair, Today Tonight and a variety of newspapers.

He owns a cattle farm near Baralaba.