Wellington house sales surge

Wellington house sales surged in March and national prices hit a new record, but commentators say the number of houses being sold is still in a slowdown mode that began in November.

Wellington enjoyed good sales in March, up 9.4 per cent although they were down 9.5 per cent on last year.

Wellington's prices fell 4.4 per cent on a monthly basis, but were up 1.4 per cent on an annual basis at $400,000.

Nationally, the median house price rose to $440,000, up 6 per cent on the previous month and 10 per cent on year ago levels, according to figures from the Real Estate Institute.

Sales jumped nearly 20 per cent on February, but were flat on a seasonally adjusted basis, and down 9.5 per cent compared to an exceptionally busy March last year.

REINZ chief executive Helen O'Sullivan said house prices were rising in part because of fewer sales in the first-home buyer price bracket.

"The proportion of sales under $400,000 has dropped by about 21 per cent, and the proportion over $1 million is increasing," O'Sullivan said.

The institute's stratified median housing price index, which smooths the extremes of the market prices, moved just 0.4 per cent in Auckland from February, but at a national level was up 3.4 per cent.

"So there's definitely still upward price pressure, but we do think the mix is shifting."

March's data confirmed the growing divide between Auckland and Christchurch and the rest of the country, but for the first time Waikato/Bay of Plenty also chipped in with significant sales.

Auckland prices rose to a new record median of $637,000, up 7.6 per cent on February and 13.3 per cent compared to a year ago. The biggest price increases last month were seen in Waitakere, outer Auckland and Rodney.

However, O'Sullivan said agents were reporting some buyer resistance to rising asking prices and a fall in clearance rates at auction.

Sales above $1m had also risen noticeably.

"We might have to introduce a new price bracket of $1m to $1.4m."

Auckland sales volumes rose 42 per cent on the previous month, but were down 9.6 per cent on a yearly basis.

Canterbury's market was also "very much starting to move now", O'Sullivan said.

Prices in Christchurch rose to $418,000, up 8.9 per cent on a year ago. But the bigger price increases were in outlying areas, with Rangiora soaring more than 16 per cent annually, Timaru jumping nearly 11 per cent and the West Coast up 22.5 per cent.

Overall, Canterbury/Westland hit a new record of $401,000, up 0.5 per cent on the previous month and 11.7 per cent for the year.

Sales lifted 11.3 per cent on the previous month, but were down 4.3 per cent on an annual basis, despite high turnover in Rangiora (16 per cent) and North Canterbury (8.8 per cent).

Other regions were more muted, but Waikato/Bay of Plenty sales were strong, up 10.4 per cent in February, although they were 17.5 per cent lower than a year ago.

The region's prices eased slightly in March but were up 7.4 per cent annually, with Hamilton's prices up 9.6 per cent on a year ago.

"Waikato's definitely starting to see a pickup and whether that's because it's on the fringe of Auckland, a bit of the growth starting to filter down to that market, is entirely possible," O'Sullivan said.

Compared to last year, only two of the institute's 12 regions recorded an increase in sales volumes, Southland (up 15.5 per cent) and Central Otago/Lakes District (up 0.9 per cent).

Westpac economist Dominick Stephens said that despite the March bounce, the housing market remained subdued.

The price data was "a bit more mysterious" with REINZ's housing price index up significantly and he suspected it might have been skewed by the Reserve Bank's low-deposit mortgage restrictions.

Quotable Value's monthly house price index had registered a sharp slowdown in house-price inflation since the start of the year, but the data was lagged.

"So the jury remains out on the trend in house prices. All we know for sure is that house price inflation was very slow two months ago."

The Dominion Post