ACT building Australia’s biggest houses, and that’s a problem

Ian Bushnell 13 November 2020 45
House construction

Through the roof: big houses and expensive land add up to an affordability problem for Canberra. Photo: File.

The ACT housing market suffers from a dearth of smaller, stand-alone houses within the reach of average homebuyers as it builds the biggest houses in Australia, a new report shows.

The CommSec Home Size Trends Report says Australia is again building the biggest houses in the world, and the ACT is at the top of the national pile.

It says the average floor area of an ACT house built in 2019-20 was 256.3 square metres; ahead of Victoria (250.3 sqm); NSW (235 sqm); and Western Australia (232.5 sqm).

But only 23 per cent of all homes built in the ACT were free-standing or detached houses in 2019-20.

Despite the apartment boom in the ACT, it is ‘house and land’ that is in high demand, as are townhouses, semi-detached dwellings or duplexes with separate title.


READ ALSO: Is buying a house really a sign of financial success anymore?


Apartment sizes are also growing again, with those in the ACT built in 2019-20 averaging 143 sqm, above the national average of 136.8 sqm.

But when all homes are taken into account the average floor size in the ACT slips back to 178.3 sqm, only ahead of Tasmania (174.8 sqm) and NSW (171.8 sqm).

While lot sizes have shrunk, the houses in the ACT have not, occupying more of the site. Older stand-alone houses may be smaller in size but are often on bigger blocks, and the land is at a premium.

It adds up to an affordability conundrum, acknowledged by Chief Minister Andrew Barr recently when grappling with the infill versus greenfield development question.

”We build big, expensive houses in Canberra and that is a factor in affordability,” he said.

He did not expect the price of land to fall substantially but suggested there were ways of getting more affordable blocks to market.

He implied that the housing industry would have to start providing a greater range of products, including smaller more affordable homes on smaller blocks, but he said infill did not mean there would not be new suburbs.

The planning system would need to play its role, something the upcoming planning review will tackle.

Aerial View, Drone, Weston Creek, Houses

In demand: the traditional house on a suburban block. Photo: File.

The CommSec report says that 2019-20 reversed a seven-year trend for smaller houses and apartments across Australia driven by the increased focus on sustainability; desire for low-maintenance homes; smaller lot sizes; fewer people per home; affordability; a desire for proximity to inner cities; and energy costs.

”Aussies had embraced apartments as well as smaller houses on smaller lot sizes. In fact the size of the average house built last year (2018-19) was the smallest in 17 years,” CommSec says.

But over the past year there appears to have been a perception that homes had shrunk a little too much, it says.

”The recent experience with COVID-19 has certainly caused more families to look for bigger homes and caused others to add extra rooms to existing homes,” the report says.

”The recent trends to butler’s pantries, mudrooms (storage for boots, coats and wet clothing) and home theatres have given more families justification to build bigger homes.”


READ ALSO: ACT set to continue going it alone on building quality


CommSec says houses built in Australia over the past year are still far bigger than those built in the 1980s and 1990s, with houses around 6 per cent bigger than 20 years ago and 27 per cent bigger than 30 years ago.

“There have been shifting trends in the sizes and styles of homes over the past decade and COVID-19 is throwing another element into the mix,” it says.

”More Aussies could embrace working from home in a bigger way, opting to move away from apartments in, or near the CBD, in preference for a larger home in a regional or suburban ‘lifestyle’ area,” it says.

Canberra falls into this regional mix, and within the ACT this could also drive even more demand for the traditional suburban house on a block or something like it.


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45 Responses to ACT building Australia’s biggest houses, and that’s a problem
jwinston jwinston 7:22 am 24 Nov 20

How dare anyone tell someone else how big or small their house should be. If I want to live alone in an ugly, 5 bedroom house then I should be allowed to without any hysteria from the tree huggers and lefties.

Queanbeyanite Queanbeyanite 5:43 pm 19 Nov 20

Your betters in the ACT local council know what you should have. Do as you are told.

In Queanbeyan we can have what we like.

tim_c tim_c 5:13 pm 19 Nov 20

They build what people buy – if there wasn’t demand for big houses, big houses wouldn’t be built. If people only bought places with decent sized yards, then developers would be forced to provide homes with decent yards – that’s why I’d never by in Gunghastly.

bryansworld bryansworld 7:36 pm 17 Nov 20

Awful. Giant houses with no gardens or trees. We are building a concrete hell that is a complete mismatch for the climate. What do people do with all that space?!

Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 7:35 pm 17 Nov 20

Perhaps part calculate rates on the house size. That might begin to discourage oversized houses.

    George Watling George Watling 8:14 pm 22 Nov 20

    How about we just go back to enforcing responsible plot ratios and set back like we did until Barr got into power.

Jeff Smith Jeff Smith 5:08 pm 16 Nov 20

I know the tax experts tell us the new Rates system switch from Stamp Duty is meant to encourage more efficient use of land, but the evidence just continues to show that it just encourages Canberrans to build bigger houses to get more value out of the expensive land parcels. Another case of 'reality' not matching the promised 'theory' from the so called experts.

Suzanne Garnett Suzanne Garnett 3:11 pm 16 Nov 20

Considering the amount of land in Australia this doesn’t make sense

Suzanne Garnett Suzanne Garnett 3:10 pm 16 Nov 20

The answer is to build up rather than out.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 9:42 pm 22 Nov 20

    Many people are building up, but also along with out. Two storey houses that cover as much land as possible; ie. most of the block, replacing a small single storey house. So not only is house footprint increased, it's now double even that, as it's double storey. Likely for two people to live there.

russianafroman russianafroman 2:13 pm 16 Nov 20

These developments are an absolute disaster and will need to be demolished when climate change begins to destroy settlements with no trees. What a foolish civilization to think you can build houses for people like this. What is wrong with the people who authorized this. The fact that people put up with it is quite sad and probably reinforces their belief that the buyers are just fools who take anything.

    dukethunder dukethunder 12:34 am 17 Nov 20

    They have air con and ACTs electricity is 100% renewable. So they can just dial up the air con as needed. Not sure on what ur issue is.

    russianafroman russianafroman 9:14 pm 18 Nov 20

    Here’s something mindblowing for you. Air-con doesn’t solve global warming. If you’re not sure what my issue is then you need to do your research about climate change, start with the “heat island effect”. Maybe then you’ll get the idea. But thinking air-con will solve climate change is quite hilarious so thanks for the laugh.

    tim_c tim_c 5:08 pm 19 Nov 20

    Thinking that the government (which can’t even empty my garbage bin) will solve climate change is an even bigger laugh!

    dukethunder dukethunder 11:03 pm 22 Nov 20

    Sounds like someone hasn’t experienced 100% green AC. It’s a guilt free pleasure in this CO2-philic world. I leave the windows open on hot nights and still blast the AC because I like a little street noise. Does pumping green powered AC air into the atmosphere offset global warming? Probably not. But it’s green energy, so no harm done and we should at least do something.

Jennifer Bradley Jennifer Bradley 12:47 pm 16 Nov 20

I wish more of them would read Sarah Susanka, author of the not so big house books.

Monique Cox Monique Cox 12:14 pm 16 Nov 20

most of the houses built these days are more energy efficient than they have ever been

its a nice fantasy to have big large blocks, but that really isn't feasible with the population.

Martin Ross Martin Ross 10:48 am 16 Nov 20

This is what happens when you keep a Labor/Greens gov in power. They’ll do this sort of garbage.

You vote for em you suffer consequences like this. Own it

Patrick J Pentony Patrick J Pentony 9:33 am 16 Nov 20

The ALP Greens gov is the sole seller of land. The price has been pushed up to $1000/m so people realistically can’t afford 700-800m blocks anymore.

Sandra Orszaczky Sandra Orszaczky 7:58 am 16 Nov 20

Planning in this former beautiful city has gone feral and very ugly.........I thought Labor and Greens were here to save the planet, not trash the place with concrete!!

    Anne O'Hara Anne O'Hara 9:09 am 16 Nov 20

    Sandra Orszaczky especially Shane Rattenbury AKA the Minister for Concrete. Not so Green, just goes along with whatever Labor want to do.

Chris Hobbs Chris Hobbs 5:58 am 16 Nov 20

It begs the question, how will the ACT produce 30% canopy cover if there is no space for additional trees?

    Patrick J Pentony Patrick J Pentony 2:53 pm 16 Nov 20

    Chris Hobbs unfortunately in some areas of Canberra it just isn’t possible. Looking at the arial photos it looks like some of the newer suburbs will always be concrete heat traps

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 8:00 pm 16 Nov 20

    There would sometimes be room for trees if people built houses the size they were built in the 1950s, but many people prefer to fill the whole block with a huge house, and often double storey as well.

Astrid Smith Astrid Smith 4:18 am 16 Nov 20

We bought our block 605sqm in 1989 having moved from Sydney. Our block was deemed a Cottage sized block, not full residential size... now we have blocks of just over 400sqm called residential blocks. How things change.

We have a 3 bed 1 bath house with so much land around it in comparison to the huge houses with no land. Like mine much better thanks.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 7:58 pm 16 Nov 20

    My last house, built in Canberra in the 1950s, was on a 460 sq metre block, so house blocks that size did exist. Houses built in the 1950s averaged about 100 sq metres I have read, so still plenty of land left for a garden. I had parking for three cars in the back garden (one in a carport and two on the lawn) without blocking another car in, a clothesline and a big vegetable garden. There was a good sized garden out the front and smaller side gardens. These days, people would build a McMansion and complain about no garden space. Better to have a smaller house and leave garden space, like it sounds your house has.

Dianna Nixon Dianna Nixon 9:01 pm 15 Nov 20

Crazy. In our climate we need verandahs, gardens, trees, shade, water tanks, solar. These designs, butting up against each others' eaves, are a backwards step.

    Emmac Ph Emmac Ph 7:06 am 16 Nov 20

    Dianna Nixon or even worse- no waves at all

    Julia Ross Julia Ross 8:12 am 16 Nov 20

    Dianna Nixon I have been saying this for years. All the suburbs these days have no room between the houses, no room in the gardens to grow cooling trees etc. This is ludicrous. Just money grabbing developers and governments squishing in as many people as possible. We have more than enough land to enable decent sized blocks.

    Maybe there should be a building to block size restriction.

    Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 6:10 am 17 Nov 20

    Dianna Nixon should be tax cuts for property owners on larger blocks that have extensive treed and vegetated gardens. The world needs more carbon soaks, not less

    Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 6:14 am 17 Nov 20

    Julia Ross the rules in Canberra when we built 14years ago varied from development to development. So what was the rule in new Banks was not the same as in Nicholls for example. Here in Banks, the rules included washing line not visible, 60% of block for garden, 30% max roof space for rain collection etc etc

Anthony Roseworn Anthony Roseworn 8:40 pm 15 Nov 20

So many horrible McMansions being built in all the new estates, with postcard sized backyards

    Ngaire Breen Ngaire Breen 6:54 am 16 Nov 20

    Anthony Roseworn agreed, the current architectural style of boxes is truely hideous. I see no elegance to the mishmash of shapes, textures and colours, and looking out over seas of almost touching grey rooftops makes me very sad. In the old suburbs you can hardly see the houses for the trees while in the new suburbs there is little room for vegetation.

    Elroy Jones Elroy Jones 7:00 am 17 Nov 20

    Anthony Roseworn big cultural shift in those areas driven by immigration. Typically, Asian or subcontinental buyers don’t value yards as much as a big house. It’s also obviously more affordable. Not for me but for some it’s their paradise

Chris Vlahos Chris Vlahos 8:39 pm 15 Nov 20

Yep new places are 256 sqm of house on 300 sqm of land....no thanks

    Jesse Mahoney Jesse Mahoney 10:08 pm 15 Nov 20

    Chris Vlahos there are very few blocks that size. And the ACT Gov requires 20% of the land area to be used for open space.

    So I'm afraid you can't put 256sqm of house on 300sqm of land.

    Chris Vlahos Chris Vlahos 10:44 pm 15 Nov 20

    Jesse Mahoney i was being sarcastic but yeah if thats true 20 percent is still far too small. People are building on the fencelines

    Karen Nicholson Karen Nicholson 10:48 am 16 Nov 20

    Chris Vlahos and they cost the same or more than an existing house on a bigger block. Go figure!

    Chris Vlahos Chris Vlahos 11:19 am 16 Nov 20

    Karen Nicholson thats why we went existing when buying our place. Big block with trees, landscape and a yard for my daughter and pets and will renovate the house when we can. We now live in a area with existing infrastructure, transport options, shops, schools and greenery.

    Also not too far from everywhere we need to go.

    Jennie Smith Jennie Smith 2:06 pm 16 Nov 20

    The huge houses with no back yard are a disgrace, especially given the average size of an Australian family is 2.1 children. Just more house to heat and cool and clean. Bring back eaves and verandahs so kids can play on rainy days.

    Ruth Brown Ruth Brown 2:57 pm 17 Nov 20

    Jesse Mahoney My husband and I built in Bonner six years ago and the requirement at the time was "a minimum of 6 square metres of private open space", no matter what the block size. This is far less than 20% of most of the smaller blocks - and most fit the "smaller" category.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 7:10 pm 15 Nov 20

“He did not expect the price of land to fall substantially but suggested there were ways of getting more affordable blocks to market.”

A government which is deeply in the red and heavily reliant on, and ideologically committed to, property related revenues won’t be doing anything of note to make housing more affordable in this town.

The most likely initiatives will be variations on the theme of the land rent scheme – better than nothing, perhaps, but a time bomb for people who don’t have the good fortune to retire on a substantial proportion of their working income and/or with a worthwhile inheritance, or two, along the way.

    JC JC 10:14 pm 16 Nov 20

    Back in reality what you have just said applies the country over with both labor and liberal states and councils.

    Do you or others have any useful suggestions on how to efficiently cater for population growth?

    chewy14 chewy14 10:39 pm 16 Nov 20

    To be fair, none of the really big changes to housing affordability are within the local government’s control anyway.

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