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Waking from a property-induced slumber

Dr. Liam Delaney, Geary Institute, UCD

6th Apr 2009

Dr. Liam Delaney of the Geary Institute, UCD, commenting on the latest Daft research on the Irish property market.

Psychology matters - particularly in times of uncertainty. Economists always talk about fundamentals and they are important - but prices are determined as much by people's emotions about the future as they are by so-called fundamentals. This is particularly pronounced in an environment of such uncertainty. Also, we are not computers. No matter how rational we think we are, humans are emotional - the cost of assets such as property and our job situation mean something to us, and these feelings relate to reference points that are set by culture, our peers and our past.

House prices are still falling and this downward trajectory is adversely affecting well-being, just as sentiment is boosted when prices were rising. This report shows that asking prices in March 2009 were over 16% lower than they were in March 2008. The average asking price nationally in March 2009 was €281,000, which is below September 2005 levels. In Dublin City Centre, prices are down 10% this quarter alone. Asking prices must be seen as an overestimate of actual prices for many reasons, not least of which the disgust people feel at disposing of an asset for less than they bought for.

The painfulness of these reductions from a psychological perspective must be seen from the point of view of timing and motivation for purchasing a home. Apart from those who released large parts of their equity, an older generation purchasing their homes as their life-long dwellings throughout the 60's, 70's and 80's must be regarding with some degree of bemusement their growing - and now shrinking - wealth. There is some evidence that the bulk of them never viewed home values as a guide to what they should consume, and in some sense the housing boom has come and gone without deeply affecting them. It may affect some of their children who perhaps were banking on the value of these assets, but for those who like to link reward to effort, this will perhaps not be viewed as a tragedy.

On the other hand, there is the group of younger buyers who purchased since the mid-1990s. Their current position is now determined by the timing and price of purchase and whether their job is stable. You would have to possess a hard heart not to feel sympathy for those who purchased between 2003 and 2008 and who now face uncertain employment. They are the ones who have lost out from the chaos of what we now think of as the second phase of the Celtic Tiger years, the period of stagnation and illusory growth from about 2000 on.

This report - combined with the recent labour force figures - indicates considerable hardship for those in once solid middle-class jobs that are now facing a potential double-whammy. People will inevitably feel even worse when they see neighbours and friends who are in better situations. Consider the position of a college graduate who purchased in Dublin in 2006, based on the income from his financial services job (now gone), to the position of his neighbour who secured a public sector position on leaving college and purchased in 2001. While neither is laughing, the latter must at least be considering himself the better off of the two. They are certainly not in the same boat and the widening rift in society being generated by asset price decline and employment uncertainty is the defining theme of our time. As described by John Fitzgerald and others, there are many who are currently better off than last year, as they are facing declining prices and interest rates in the context of stable employment in their sector.

There is a wider story being played out. In their recent book "Animal Spirits", Robert Shiller and George Akerlof talk about, among other things, the key role of stories and narrative in conditioning economic outcomes. Such stories often take their cues from the prevailing economic climate. But they can take on a force of their own and change people's expectations, for example what they think is the value of their house or the prospects for the future.

One version of a national narrative that was articulated in the previous commentary by Gerard O'Neill was the idea that the Irish cultural and psychological need for property may be displaced by a culture where renting is given more credence as part of a normal adult life. Were such a story about the Irish relation to property to take hold, it would clearly have substantial implications for any potential future rebound in property prices. Key players at the moment are those who can afford property but are riding out the current uncertainty by taking advantage of falling rents. If they follow Gerard's story, they may never come back into the buying market and the next generation may follow them into long term renting.

Yet, we still hear strongly the story that the Irish have always been and will always be wedded to the idea of home ownership as a fundamental part of maturing into adulthood. If such a story about Irishness and adulthood maintains its hold, house prices will eventually settle at a higher level, and changes in the market will depend on macroeconomic conditions, rather than on the type of seismic shift in Irish culture described by Gerard.

This report raises another story embedded in the Irish psyche, the idea that the potential of a generation can be "lost". With mounting job uncertainty and falling property prices, this story is prominent again. There is, of course, another story, one of a creative nation woken from a property-induced slumber to think once again about how to create real value doing things that its people are skilled at. In the face of such a deterioration though, who has the vision and leadership to tell this story?


Asking Price Index
Asking Price Index

Stock of Properties
Stock of Properties


Snapshot of Asking Price Nationwide