Fact check: Claims foreigners buying 11pc of NSW real estate 'bogus'

News emerged this week that 11 per cent of NSW homes were being sold to 'foreigners' who were pricing out first-home buyers.

The data, which came from the Office of State Revenue (OSR) after a request from NSW Labor, revealed 2995 residential property purchases were made across the state by foreign nationals from July to September 2016.

This was then turned into headlines claiming 'foreigners' have priced out first-home buyers.

But very little in this claim holds up to scrutiny.

A further analysis of foreign residential investor purchases provided to Domain by the OSR found just 1.5 per cent of sales were foreign purchases in the eight months between July 2016 to February 2017. So why are the numbers so different?

Timing is everything

The data Labor requested was for July through to September. This was the period following the 2016 pre-budget announcement of a 4 per cent stamp duty surcharge on foreign buyers and a 0.75 per cent land tax.

With these taxes also came a call for more detailed reporting about where foreign property buyers are from.

Using a single quarter of data for property can be problematic due to the time lag that comes with home settlements and the collection process.

Indeed, if you look at the September 'total' figure for transactions it was far lower than the data provided for July and August.

It's likely the September data was incomplete.

But even if the 11 per cent figure was accurate, it doesn't tell us anything about "foreign buyer activity".

Instead, it shows a trend we already know to be alive and well - Sydney's attractiveness to new migrants.

Who is a 'foreigner'?

"Foreign nationals" isn't just a phrase describing cashed-up offshore investors looking for a safe-haven for their wealth.

In fact, the "foreigner" label in this context describes a very substantial part of Sydney's population - permanent residents who have migrated from abroad, and those here on working visas.

"The data provided does include those permanent residents of Australia who are deemed foreign persons for the purposes of the Duties Surcharge, but does not separate these individuals out," a spokesperson for the Office of State Revenue said.

The definition of those deemed 'foreign' for the purposes of a duties surcharge are those not in the country for 200 or more days during the 12 months before buying a property.

Current laws require a person to live in Australia for four years before applying for citizenship.

In 2015/16, the government's own data found there were more than 60,000 new migrants - or an average of 15,000 a quarter.

It's not a huge stretch of the imagination to expect some of those falling under the "foreigner" banner in the newly released data are, in fact, new migrants.

Are there more foreign buyers than first-home buyers?

Since the "11 per cent" figure, the claim that there are more sales to "foreigners" than first-home buyers has also been aired.

On a pure numbers basis, this doesn't stack up.

Over the same period Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows 3965 first-home buyers entered the property market. This is more than the 2995 "foreign buyers" that supposedly outnumbered them.

Despite this, we're now hearing an election proposal from NSW Opposition leader Luke Foley to lift the foreign investor stamp duty surcharge to 7 per cent and hike the land tax for "foreigners" to 1.5 per cent.

He said this would be done "to make housing affordable in NSW".

Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said the "the jury was still out" on whether increasing a levy would improve housing affordability, though said the figures were "concerning".

This didn't stop headlines from announcing foreign buyers were "pricing locals out of the market".

A scathing response from the Property Council of NSW executive director Jane Fitzgerald has since described the figures as "bogus" and a "distraction" from the real issues.

Are foreign buyers pushing up prices?

Research from Treasury from 2016found across Sydney and Melbourne "for a typical postcode, foreign demand increases prices by between $80 and $122 on average in each quarter."

Its summary: "Only a small proportion of the increase in property prices in recent years" was attributable to foreign demand.

Those who have formally researched foreign investment were also nonplussed, including University of Sydney Business School professor of Chinese business and management Hans Hendrischke.

His analysis in 2015 found foreign investment was approximately 2 per cent of the market and "the figures we had two years ago still very much hold".

And with no new information about specifically where the foreign investors are buying and how much they're paying for these properties, "it's disingenuous to say it would have an impact on housing affordability", Dr Hendrischke said.

"Even with these figures, imposing some kind of surcharge or increasing the costs ... it's a budget rationale and not a housing affordability solution."

This story Fact check: Claims foreigners buying 11pc of NSW real estate 'bogus' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.