Mining towns present the ultimate risk-return conundrum for property investors, as I wrote in my Property Observer column in August.
They’re so hard for property investors to resist. They have the highest capital growth rates in Australia, and they have the highest rental returns.
They also are the riskiest options for property investors. Mining towns are single-industry economies – sometimes single-employer economies – and are vulnerable to downturns in the lone industry.
Over the past 10 years a typical suburb in an Australian city has averaged capital growth around 10% a year (thought certainly not in the past two years). The best suburbs in cities like Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth have averaged 14% or 15% – which is pretty good, because at those growth rates values are doubling every five years.
But the best of the mining towns have capital growth averages double those growth rates. Both Moranbah and Dysart, coal-mining towns in Queensland, have recorded growth in their median house prices averaging more than 30% a year. So too has Newman, deep in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The median price for Cloncurry in western Queensland rose 60% in the past 12 months.
But the lure of the mining towns doesn’t end there. They also offer the highest rental yields in the nation. Many of them have double-digit rental returns. With the current surge in resources projects, particularly in Western Australia and Queensland, some mining towns can provide initial returns above 15%.
But it’s never plain sailing with mining towns. They lack diversity, so their economic life is a roller coaster. Some also service the surrounding farming economy, but the high levels of prices and rents are based on demand created by the resources sector.
This makes these locations highly vulnerable to downturns in the mining economy. When the global financial crisis struck in 2008, global demand for Australian resources fell. Miners downsized and in some cases shut down mining operations.
In coal-dependent towns like Dysart and Moura in Queensland, residential vacancies rapidly rose from near-zero to double digits. Gladstone, which has had four years of strong growth in house prices, had a 10% decrease in prices in 2009.
The small WA communities of Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun were devastated when BHP Billiton shut down a $2 billion nickel mine that had been completed only months earlier – 1,800 people lost their jobs and property values fell. Hopetoun’s price performance since then has been a decline averaging 6% per year.
More recently, we have seen mining companies refusing to rent properties in Moranbah over concerns about the high levels of house rents and upheaval in nearby Dysart followed the closure of the Norwich Park mine. Neither of these events is terminal to the towns’ investment prospects, but they demonstrate how uncertain property ownership can be in mining towns.
Ultimately, an individual’s attitude to investing in mining towns, or not, depends on their objectives, risk profile and experience as an investor.
It’s important for investors to understand their goals and to have a strategy for achieving them (it’s surprising how many don’t). Equally important is understanding their attitude to risk. If they prioritise safety and low risk, mining towns are not for them.
For anyone starting out as an investor, mining towns are not a good option. They may provide big gains short term, but ultimately values may decrease sharply if a downturn occurs, such as the one that followed the onset of the GFC in 2008.
On the other hand, experienced investors with substantial property portfolios may be happy to accept those risks within the context of a portfolio that has assets in safer locations.
Generally, investors wishing to safely exploit the rise of the resources sector should look at buying in regional centres that benefit from the mining upturn but are not dependent on it.
Regional cities and towns such as Toowoomba and Mackay in Queensland, Geraldton in Western Australia, and Muswellbrook in New South Wales have diverse economies but also prosper when the mining sector is rising. These are safer options than mining towns.