Demographic Influences on the Housing Market

Over the years there has been lots of discussion about the “fundamentals” of the housing market. Our “strong demographics” were often cited as contributing to the buoyant demand for housing. By this was meant that the rapid growth of the numbers in the household-forming age groups – relative to the number of units being vacated by deaths etc – translated into a firm demand for additions to the housing stock.  On this site, Colm McCarthy looked at the impact of demographics on the demand for housing yesterday, referring to recent evidence on the resumption of net emigration. Some of the ensuing discussion tended to get bogged down in trying to interpret very short-term indicators. I thought it would be helpful to provide a medium-term perspective on this aspect of the housing market.

The point of departure is that over the past ten or fifteen years Ireland’s population has been growing faster than that of any other OECD country. For example, our population grew by 14 per cent between 2002 and 2008 when the population of EU15 managed only a 4 per cent increase.

Both components of population change – natural increase and net immigration – contributed to Ireland’s exceptional growth. The rate of net immigration was extraordinarily high in 2006 and 2007, when it reached 1.8 per cent of the population and accounted for two-thirds of total population growth. But the CSO figures released yesterday show that there was a resumption of net emigration between April 2008 and April 2009, which could be a harbinger of higher net outflows in the short to medium term.  Ireland’s rate of natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) has also been exceptionally high in the recent past. It rose from 0.4% in 1996 to 1.0% in 2008 at a time when the rate in several European countries – including Germany and Italy – turned negative as deaths outnumbered births.

In light of the exceptional rate of net immigration in the middle of the present decade, and the continuing high rate of natural increase, the talk of strong demographic underpinnings of the housing market was understandable, although economists never lost sight of the responsiveness of migration to the performance of the Irish economy and the unusually open nature of our labour market. However, we should also be wary of extrapolating the recent evidence of resumed net emigration.

To get a better fix on the medium-term influence of demographic factors on the housing market over the medium term, I have used the population projections for 2011-2041 published by the CSO in 2008. I confine attention to the years 2011-2021 and to the M0 or zero net migration assumption. (This allows for some net inflows and outflows in individual age groups that sum to zero for the whole population.) This seems a reasonable compromise between rushing to assume that there will be an upsurge in emigration on the basis of this year’s figure and the more bullish net immigration scenarios published by the CSO two years ago.

My approach was simply to apply 2006 household male and female headship rates by ten age groups to the projected population in 2011, 2016, and 2021. This yields projections of the number of households on the assumption of no change in average household size within each demographic group. Thus, no allowance is made for the probable continuing trend towards smaller households, especially at older ages or for any effects of rising unemployment/falling disposable income on rates of household formation. The projection of the number of households is entirely driven by the underlying population projection.

Before discussing the results, it is worth looking at how the projected population for 2011 compares with the estimated 2009 population published by the CSO this week. On the assumption of zero net migration the projected 2011 population aged 20 and over was 3,232.5 thousand, while the estimated 2009 population is 3,243.4 thousand. On the face of it, the discrepancy of 10.7 thousand or 0.3 per cent is trivial but when the numbers in individual age groups are compared bigger discrepancies come to light. In particular, the large fall that was projected for the population aged 20-29 does not seem to be happening on cue. The estimated 2009 numbers in the 20-24 and 25-29 age groups are 12 per cent and 18 per cent ahead of the projected 2011 numbers. On the other hand, the estimated numbers aged 30 and over in 2009 are 3.3 per cent below the 2011 projection. This highlights the uncertainty surrounding Irish population projections. None the less, the detailed projections published in 2008 are the best available for preparing estimates of the likely evolution of the number of households in the country.

The projected number of households in the country in 2011, 2016, and 2021 obtained from applying the methodology described above is shown in Figure 1.

The actual change in the number of households over the four-year period 2002-2006 is also shown. All figures are annualised for comparative purposes.

The projections show the growth in the total number of households halving from 45,000 a year between 2002 and 2006 to a fairly steady 20,000+ between 2006 and 2021. This reflects the replacement of exceptionally high net immigration between 2002-06 with the assumption of zero net migration after 2006 as well as the impact of the fall in the birth rate in the 1980s on the numbers entering the 25-44 age groups after 2006.

Optimists might take comfort from the projection of a continued net increase of 20,000 – 25,000 a year in the number of households after 2006. However, if we dig deeper and look at the projected change in the number of households by age of the head of households (or what is now called the ‘reference person’) the picture becomes less assuring (Figure 2).

What we now see is that the change in the number of households headed by individuals aged under 45 years (what might loosely be identified as potential ‘first time buyers’) collapses from 24,000 a year in 2002-06 to minus 6,000 in 2016-21. On the other hand,  the number of households headed by individuals aged 45-64 (‘trader-uppers’?) drops from 16,000 a year to around 11,000 a year after 2006. Finally, the number of households headed by an individual aged 65 or over (‘downsizers’?) trebles from 5,000 to 15,000 a year.

We might wish to concentrate on the projection of households headed by individuals aged 20-29 as being most relevant to the demand for (new) housing. The dramatic reduction in the projected number of households headed by individuals in this age group is a simple reflection of the fact that the underlying projected population falls from 715.6 thousand in 2006 to 521.8 thousand in 2021. This in turn reflects the falling number of births recorded during the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. If the zero net migration assumption used in these projections were to be replaced by a more pessimistic assumption, the result would of course be an even sharper fall in the projected number of young households.  Thus on any reasonable set of assumptions the demand for housing emanating from a key demographic group is likely to weaken considerably over the coming decade.

The accelerating increase in the number of households headed by individuals aged 65 and over will not compensate for the decline in the number of younger households. Some of the older households will presumably be interested in smaller, easier-to-maintain units while freeing up the larger houses they now occupy. This will support a demand for apartments and dwelling suited to the elderly, but its net effect on the demand for housing units will be negative.

Thus our “strong demographic fundamentals” seem to have evaporated quite rapidly. The implications for the “long run economic value” of our housing stock are negative.

30 replies on “Demographic Influences on the Housing Market”

Excellent piece. I have one quibble.

You say not to assume that net emigration will continue. Fair enough. But you base your figures on 2006, near peak immigration. My point being, I suppose, that we should probably consider a level of population as ‘base’ with a slice on top that is ‘transient’ and migrates on economic concerns.

Having left in the 1980s (as a child) and returned in 2000 (as an adult, though some might disagree) I am well aware of people of my generation with a much more flexible attitude to migration. The wonder, to my mind, of the last ten years is not that so many other EU immigrants arrived (comparative economics make it a rational decision), but that so many Irish returned. This is a unique occurrence in the history of the state. Now that the ‘great moderation’ of the Irish boom-bust cycle has turned out to be mythical, is this likely to be a recurring feature?

The depression will curtail both income and expenses. But the overall effect will also be negative.
As the economy disimproves so will the demographics, causing a vicious circle.
This in turn will be worsened by poor decision making at the top, amply demonstrated by the DIRT, Anglo-Irish and Nama decisions. These decision makers are unlikely to become better at it! Again a vicious, but ever so golden circle!
There are reasons why Ireland was a net loser of population in the past and these have not changed. In fact as set out above, and in the article above by Brendan Walsh, they are at their worst. Many realize what is happening and given the better education, at significant public expense, they will make rational decisions especially after reading the better blogs such as this one!
Those who do not see it or who are unemployable elsewhere, will stay. Ireland is part of an enormous open market, and younger english speakers are very welcome abroad.
Luckily for the housing and other sectors, the demand is reducing with the depression. But the diaspora means cousins etc form a network of contacts for migration. Domestic demand is set to collapse!

A good piece but of course the assumption of zero net migration is a strong one. You make this point, I think, but it is worth making again.

Particularly worhty of note, I think, in the context of unemployment over 10%, is that potential Irish emigrants face easier access to labour markets in the EU now than they did in previous years. Not only are there more places to go in a bigger EU, but there is a single currency, Bologna Process recognition for qualifications and English has been more firmly established as the lingua franca in continental labour markets, particularly high up the value chain where the cohorts are most likely to impact on housing demand. Plus, there’s Ryanair to get them there cheaply (and on time!)

As you have alluded to, this resounds on the natural rate of increase, too, making the assumption of zero net migration not just strong, but also very sensitive. Migrants tend to be of child bearing age, so birth rates will take a hammering if young women leave.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I would wonder what the likely impacts of deteriorating economic conditions and health care quality will have on death rates. More older people dying means more of the housing stock emptying out more quickly, I would have thought.

@Professor Walsh

With your infinitely greater experience, reputation and status in this field than a nonentity like me, would you be able to get any reliable figures from the CSO regarding the increase in the number of households in Ireland since 2006?

I’m sure you’ll agree that it is very unsatisfactory that the last official figure published by the CSO for the number of households in Ireland relates to April 2006 (the date of the last census), which is now almost 3.5 years ago. In N. Ireland, and in most EU countries, figures are published annually for the number of households. If this was done here, it wouldn’t be necessary to project the increase in the number of households between 2006 and 2011 based on 2006 census data. Instead, the actual number would be known up to 2009, and any projection to 2011 would be much more accurate.

As it happens, I emailed the CSO last week and asked them if they could give me any estimates for the number of households in Ireland since 2006 based on their QNHS series, even though they didn’t publish them officially. To my great surprise, they replied in the affirmative and sent me the following figures. However, they did say that they weren’t as reliable as most of the figures they publish (presumably why they don’t publish them officially) and should be treated with caution. Here they are anyway:

2006 Q1: 1,501.8
2006 Q2: 1,504.6
2006 Q3: 1,492.7
2006 Q4: 1,518.6

2007 Q1: 1,528.5
2007 Q2: 1,532.1
2007 Q3: 1,545.5
2007 Q4: 1,574.9

2008 Q1: 1,582.6
2008 Q2: 1,581.9
2008 Q3: 1,601.6
2008 Q4: 1,599.5

2009 Q1: 1,632.7

If these figures are accurate (and, as I say, they need to be treated with caution even though they are from the CSO), the number of households in Ireland has continued to rise since 2006 at well over 40,000 annually, rather than the 22,500 (approximately) shown in the graph. If that is the case (and, to repeat, it may not be reliable), the difference may be due to the effect of falling household size resulting from increasing separation and divorce. If my reading of the narrative is correct (and apologies if it is not), this very important factor was omitted from the projections shown in the graph.

The CSO emailed me those figures last week, before the latest QNHS was published yesterday. I emailed them yesterday and asked if they could update them to 2009 Q2, but no reply yet. Whatever, it is an absurd situation that people are having basically to guesstimate the number of households in Ireland in 2009 from 2006 data, when the actual number (or a very good estimate of it) must be floating around somewhere in the CSO. Surely the Government at least could gain access to it?

“We might wish to concentrate on the projection of households headed by individuals aged 20-44 as being most relevant to the demand for (new) housing. The dramatic reduction in the projected number of households headed by individuals in this age group is a simple reflection of the fact that the underlying projected population falls from 715.6 thousand in 2006 to 521.8 thousand in 2021”

Brendan, do you mean individuals aged 20-29?

Three points occur:

1. On previous experience of less severe downturns in Ireland, and on say a five-year view, zero net outflow is optimistic;

2. Brendan raises the issue of the composition of excess stock of housing units – especially their appeal to FTBs, given the age composition of household formation. The problem is compounded by the excess stock’s location, and suitability for local markets, given disappearance of immigrant rental demand. Some excess stock (eg apartments and high-density terraced and semi-det) in parts of provincial Ireland does not enjoy any natural local demand, as far as I can see.

3. All the unsuitable excess stock got built due to excess credit etc etc, but every single eyesore development got planning permission. Surely our good friends the planners have a few questions to answer?

re point 3 in your experience is it possible that cash strapped county councils, who were not compensated for the cost of benchmarking by central govt went on an orgy of planning approvals to get development levies in the door to pay for said benchmarking.

Out here in leafy Dun Laoghaire, it appears the Council ramped up the density of new developments. It is not unknown to walk through a mature estate of semi-ds (yes we do have some) and run into a brand spanking (half empty) aparmtment block.

In addition, I wonder if the council collected all the levies due to it. Bet not

There were a bunch of papers estimating aggregation migration models for Ireland, including one by Geary & O’Gráda if memory serves me right. They would probably need to be updated & perhaps refined but one could use the estimates to put some numbers (and maybe a confidence interval) on Colm’s 1st point. Such extrapolation may be dangerous given that we seem to be off the scale but worth a try.

Are we, through the proposed NAMA, creating a form of intervention for the excess credit that enabled the unsuitable excess housing stock to be built?

Does this then give rise to NAMA (ie. us) owning all that excess stock, if/when the borrowers default on the excess credit?

If so, we should now be watching for the state to use all kinds of means to ensure that we get “value” for this stock (ie. the growth in value that NAMA proponents hope for) – distortions of investment in infrastructure eg. METRO North, a new LUAS line to serve Ballsbridge to add value to the sites that An Bord Pleanála refused permission on the grounds that it was in breach of the then Dublin City Development Plan, siting of schools?

It is not only the planners that have questions to answer.

By making a few assumptions it might be possible to see if it reasonable to assume the property market will rise:

1. To maintain the current prices it is necessary with new entrants.

2. The new entrants are making their purchasing decisions based on their need and the affordability of the property

3. Potential new entrants into the property market are mostly among the young.

4. Unemployment rates are higher among the young.

5. Young people in employment are making less than their older colleagues

6. Banks will base their lending decisions on lenders ability to repay more than the value of the underlying security.

If the assumptions above are correct then I’d say that the property market has further to fall.

Are there any statistics available for average income (including the unemployed) for the agebracket with the traditional first time buyers?


The most recent CSO stats on earnings are in their 2007 National Employment Survey published in July this year. Yes, earnings vary by age as they do by a range of other factors (e.g., qualifications, sector, occupation etc). In 2007 average annual earnings across all employees were €37,726: for 25 to 29 year olds the figure is €32,677 and for 30 to 39 year olds the figure is €41,322. For simplicity, assuming no major change since 2007 – and taking the annual average for the 30 to 39 year olds being representative of the current income of FTBs – gives a single person access to a mortgage of just over €103,305. Assuming a couple both on annual average gives them access to a mortgage of €144,627. This assumes mortgage calculated at 2.5 times income of main earner plus income of second earner. The implications for house prices “affordable” for the average working person / couple are clear.

On the composition (if not the location) of units, perhaps there is some clever thinking that can be done on how best to use a fleet of unused one-bedroom apartments.

Hotels are clearly not an option (in fact, some are turning into apartments) but any other suggestions along the following lines?
– knocking down walls and turning one-beds into 2/3 bedroom units, suitable for communities of post-retirement downsizers
– a bit more of a stretch but turning some of these entire developments into nursing homes?
– intergenerational outsourcing: dirt-cheap accommodation a starting point for attracting IDA projects/setting up new IDA parks, etc.

Or do we have to start looking long and hard at demolition given facts such as, with half the population, Connacht/Ulster saw more homes built during the boom than Dublin?

Excellent analysis – almost inevitable will prove inaccurate as did most economic projections published pre – Summer 2008 (Colm McCarthy excepted admittedly).

You say “talk of strong demographic underpinnings of the housing market was understandable, although economists never lost sight of the responsiveness of migration to the performance of the Irish economy and the unusually open nature of our labour market”.

Does this make any sense? Talk of strong demographic underpinnings can only be understandable if economists did exactly what you say they didn’t do, ie:loose sight of responsiveness to migration. I know plenty of economists who did exactly that. “Look at the trends” they told us, “we are exceptional”.

The reality is that we have no real idea where the Irish economy will be in 2 years time, not to mind ten, and I’m tired of these extrapolations from the depths of a crisis. Too many variables, some in our control like smart policy making, others completely outside of our control like the price of oil, or global economic recovery. I really don’t buy all the doom laden prophecies.

For that reason I choose to believe we will learn from this mess and drag ourselves out sooner rather than later. Ireland’s natural advantages, of which there are many, will come to the fore in an increasingly resource scarce world.

@Tom Ronayne

Thanks for the stats. I was hoping to have someone disagreeing with my assumptions but this helps as well.

The affordability factor of 2.5 is something I’ve seen before, I can’t remember where. Could you help me out with that & tell me where that comes from? I believe the factor could be argued to be larger in Ireland due to the lower taxes resulting in higher disposable income?

As for the low taxes, I know there have been promises that there will not be tax increases but I suspect that the government will have to take some measures to deal with the budget deficit.

The options seems to be:
-Lowering the salary of almost 15-20% of the working population (public sector) which could result in a lower average salary.
-Increasing tax take.

Neither seems to be good for the property market.


You can read all about it in this paper.

Its for the U. States, but I expect its fairly similar here.

The figure most commonly quoted figure for ‘affordability factor’ is 3.0, not 2.5. However, its important to note that this refers to household income, not individual income. Household income is much higher because most households nowadays have two income earners.

In the above paper, the author calculates the long-term ratio of house prices in the U. States to ‘per capita disposable income’ rather than to ‘household income’ because (he says) the former is available on a monthly basis, while the latter is only available on an annual basis.

His figures don’t make good reading for those who think that the average house price in Ireland should fall to €150,000 or even less. He calculates that, averaged over the period from 1970 to July 2008 (when the paper was published), the average house price in the U. States was 6.19 times per capita disposable income, with the all-time low of 5.55 being hit in December 1990.

So, if some bright spark from one of our universities can work out what the figure for ‘per capita disposable income’ is in Ireland, we could estimate fairly accurately to what extent house prices in Ireland are currently over-valued, if at all. Perhaps Morgan Kelly could undertake the task.

According to the CSO, gross national income per capita in Ireland in 2008 was €35,257. That figure is fairly similar to the figures that Tom Ronayne gave for average earnings. But, to make it comparable with the calculations that the above paper was doing for the U. States, one would need to reduce it by whatever the average income tax take is, to make it ‘per capita disposable income’, rather than just ‘per capita income’. I don’t know that tax figure, but in Ireland its exceptionally low compared with most countries.

On that basis, I’d say the average house price in Ireland should be about €200,000 to €210,000 to match the average 6.19 long-term average ratio that the above paper calculated for the U. States.

@John – Thanks, always appreciated to get more information.

I’m wary of trusting models and statistics. Averages can hide too much information & I’m thinking that the average first time buyer comes from a small section of the total population. But it might not be possible to verify that theory.

I’ve studied both accounting and statistics. Both have entertaining stories about how reliable they are. Economics is probably worse than both 😉

From the report:
“Two popular benchmarks that identify the extent housing has become overvalued in the past are housing prices relative to per capita income and housing prices relative to the owners’ equivalent rent.”

It is possible to use two popular but different benchmarks, depending on what result is wished for a different benchmark can be used.

At least here it seems both indicate that the property market has not yet bottomed out.

Ronan L:

You know more about this than I do (I hope!), but Dublin and the other main cities could be less of a problem than provincial Ireland proper. There should be a market eventually for the excess houses and apartments in Dublin and surrounding counties, also Cork etc if prices/rents fall enough. But what about West and North Midlands, North West, North Munster, West Coast? These areas are 100 kms and more from Dublin, adult population seems to be static/falling for the next few years, and there is no local demand for much of what has been built (high density stuff more appropriate to infill sites in Inchicore).

There are hundreds of empty completed developments littered all over the towns and villages in these areas which have been built because planning permission and credit were available, but there seems to me to be no market, and no realistic prospect of a market, even at fire-sale prices, for the kind of stuff that was built.

We really need a national over-view study which nails down the nature and composition of the unsold stock, and the demand prospects by locality. One irony is that the local demand in many areas seems to be for the bungalow-on-half-an-acre, precisely what planners have discouraged.

The government really should undertake a complete survey on the vacant housing stock.

It is crazy at a time when the state is about to purchase €47bn worth of property loans that we don’t have up to date stats on this.

Not sure about ‘per capita disposable income’ but if you use ‘net take home pay’ and the 6.19 ratio you get the following. (I think!)


Single Person
€35257 Gross
€30014 Net x 6.19 (€185786)

Married Couple
€35257 Gross
€31884 Net x 6.19 (€197361)

2009 B2

Single Person
€35257 Gross
€28604 Net x 6.19 (€177058)

Married Couple
€35257 Gross
€30434 Net x 6.19 (€188386)

2010 ???

Short-term modelling of migration is obviously very difficult. The structure of the population has changed since the last time we experienced net outflows (in the early 1990s). The composition of the relevant population has been altered by the recent inflows of population.
We should bear in mind that the estimated net outflow of 7,800 between April 2008 and April 2009 is the balance between an inflow of 57,300 and an outflow of 65,100.
The outflow of 22,900 males to the “EU-12” (basically, the new accession states) was the really big news in 2008-09. If we exclude the movement of people to and from the “EU-12” there was a continued net inflow to Ireland: Immigration + 44,200 less Emigration 42,200 = net immigration 2,000.
Interestingly, for all destinations/origins combined there was a continued net inflow of females (+3,000), offset by a net outflow of males (-10,900).
However, we must bear in mind that these estimates have to be subject to significant margins of error.


The big jump between 2006 and 2009 in the CSO’s estimate of the number of households is striking. It reflects the equally-surprising estimated growth in the population aged 20-29.


I think many economists did point to the responsiveness of migration to the performance of the Irish economy and the weakness of the argument about “strong demographic fundamentals” but these warnings had no impact when irrational exuberance was running strong.

If we are experiencing a historic low I’d be inclined to be using a lower factor than the long term historical average of 6.19. In the US the historical low factor in the report is 5.55. Then again, both are for the US so neither might be accurate for the Irish market.

Still I don’t see how the bottom of the property market can be called now.

I doubt if nursing homes are a possibility: these have particular design requirements so I think it would be very expensive to adapt them to modern standards & many of the locations would not be suitable.
In some cases, I suspect, it will be a choice between demolition or dereliction.

There are risks associated with moving from median household income to average income (disposable or otherwise) as a measure of affordability, particularly when endeavouring to compare different countries. These are essentially that:
– the distribution of income may be different – average is generally much higher than median, but the ratio between the two may not be the same for different countries
– the distributions of various measures to do with multi-income households may be different

Bearing all that in mind … I have a figure of a ratio of 5.7 between median house prices and median household incomes for 2007 in Ireland, which was published by Demographia International. The average Irish house price that year was around €310k, and the median will certainly have been less. If the sustainable ratio between mean household income and median house price at that point was 3, it follows that the sustainable median house price at that time was less than €163k.

Take the Demographia number with a grain of salt as large or small as you like.

Just following through on John’s logic …

When the economy falters and the emigration/immigration tide turns life becomes more complex. Countries that accept immigrants and are dependent on immigrants to keep the economy growing are familiar with what happens when the tide turns. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Russia the US and others know that under normal conditions 50% of immigrants leave within 5 years, this accelerates when unemployment rises to uncomfortable rates or unemployment benefits expire. The housing market gets hit the hardest, this is why the middle class homeowners support payments to immigrants in hard times. Every immigrant family that leaves means one more housing unit unoccupied which means another unit on the resale market or no rent for the landlord. In Ireland I have the feeling that most people believe we can defy gravity by encouraging the immigrants to leave so as we can enjoy prosperity again. Reminds of attitudes in the US where all ills are imported from abroad. The biggest problem when the tide turns is that it feeds on itself leading to a downward spiral that is extremely difficult to control. In the US 40 million Mexicans would move north if controls were lifted. In Ireland our immigrants from within the EU are well educated and come from countries where conditions are by and large tolerable. This means that while the US can be harsh, Ireland has to treat its immigrants in as fair and equitable a manner as it treats ind indigenous population.


Single Person
€35257 Gross
€30014 Net x 6.19 (€185786)

I’m single and earning slightly more than average pay.
I recently got a quote from a mortgage broker of €180k
So your 6 times Net is close enough.

File under anecdotal evidence

Some more anecdotal evidence:

I got offered a job in Germany. After taxes and paying for accomodation I’d have the same amount of money to spend in Germany as I do in Ireland. However there is a big difference in the split between accomodation & taxes.

In Germany, the accomodation is cheaper but more money goes to the state in taxes.

For me as a private citizen it means that by paying the state more of my income I can hopefully expect better public services in Germany than in Ireland. I’ve never lived in Germany so I don’t know if it is true.

Ireland has a huge budget deficit, I expect that to addressed somehow and I do not think savings in expenditure will be enough. I believe the tax take has to increase. I believe an adjustment from low taxes & high cost of accomodation to higher taxes & lower cost of accomodation will be necessary & if the adjustment happens it might be painful for those who can’t lower their cost of accomodation.

The above may or may not affect the demographics in Ireland. The need for housing might be there, whether or not there will be a demand may or may not be another issue.

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