Bigger mortgages, higher rents: Four financial takeaways from the 2021 census

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Try and cast your mind back to August last year. For plenty of people that will likely evoke unpleasant memories of COVID lockdowns, but on a Tuesday night in the middle of August, millions of Australians sat down to respond to the 2021 census.

Well, nearly 11 months later the Australian Bureau of Statistics has finished crunching some of the numbers and started releasing the 2021 census results. Of course, this census is particularly interesting because of the impact the pandemic was having on many lives when it was conducted.

"The census was conducted at an unprecedented time in Australia's history and provides a unique snapshot of the population during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is different from previous censuses," says Australian statistician Dr David Gruen.

census housing affordability

Let's take a look at a few financial facts worth highlighting so far.

1. Mortgage payments rose, even as rates dropped

On census night 2021 over three million Australian households reported that they owned their own home (with a mortgage), with the median monthly repayment across the country coming in at $1863 - $108 higher than the $1755 being paid in 2016.

What's interesting about that rise is that it coincided with a drop in interest rates over the same five-year period. Home loan data tracked by Mozo shows that the average variable rate for owner-occupiers making principal and interest repayments fell from 4.51% in August 2016 to 3.18% in August 2021.

So why did mortgage payments rise? Well, one simple answer is that the size of the average mortgage rose by $153,030. In August 2016 the average owner-occupier loan size in Australia was $411,875, but fast-forward to August 2021 and that number had grown to $564,905 according to ABS figures.

Another point of note is that in 2021, almost 20% of those households were making mortgage repayments of more than $3000 per month. But given the way interest rates are headed, that's a figure that may well continue to climb in the future.

2. Median incomes are up, but geographical and gender disparities remain

Over the five years between the 2016 and 2021 censuses, you would expect that the national median weekly income for individuals would have risen. Well, it did, increasing by $143 from $662 to $805. The median income for households also grew over that five-year period, going from $1438 to $1746.

Now if those figures seem lower than you anticipated, just bear in mind that it incorporates the entire population aged between 15 and 85, including people who are unemployed and retired.

It turns out that there are some pretty sizeable differences if you cut the data based on where people live though. For instance, the median weekly personal income in 2021 was highest in the Australian Capital Territory ($1203), Northern Territory ($936) and Western Australia ($848), but lowest in South Australia ($734) and Tasmania ($701).

There are also income discrepancies between genders. At the top end of the median income scale, for example, 71% of those who reported a weekly income of $3000 or more were men, while 29% of that cohort were women.

3. More people are renting and paying more to rent

There were 359,830 more renting households on census night than there were in 2016, pushing the total number of renting households across Australia to over 2.8 million. Renters made up 30.6% of people in occupied private dwellings on the night - just shy of Australians who own their home outright.

Unsurprisingly, there was also a $35 increase in the national median weekly rent to $375 between censuses, though it's not clear how many Australians were receiving reduced rental rates at the time as a result of the pandemic.

Close to one in five (18.1%) renting households reported that they were paying $250 or less per week, while nearly one in twenty (4.7%) said that their rent was above $750 a week.

The latest census also shed a light on the number of renting households putting more than 30% of their income towards rent - often considered an indicator of housing stress. Between 2016 and 2021 the number of households in this category rose to 915,317, however, as a proportion of all renting households it actually dropped from 36% to 32%.

4. Less people volunteered their time

On a final side note, it turns out that there's been a significant drop in the number of Australians giving their time as unpaid volunteers to charities, religious organisations, schools and sporting groups.

In 2016, 3.6 million people reported that they had done unpaid voluntary work in the previous twelve months, but in 2021 that figure had fallen to 2.9 million - a 19% reduction.

The silver lining is that the most recent census might not paint a totally accurate picture of the generosity of Australians when it comes to volunteering their time. After all, the 12-month period before last year's census coincides with a large portion of the pandemic, meaning that there are likely plenty of people who would usually volunteer but weren't in a position to.

The number of Australians doing other forms of unpaid work all rose though, including unpaid domestic work (7% higher), unpaid child care (4% higher) and unpaid care for a person with a disability, health condition or who is older age (15% higher).

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Tom Watson is a senior journalist at Money magazine, and one of the hosts of the Friends With Money podcast. He's previously worked as a journalist covering everything from property and consumer banking to financial technology. Tom has a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) from the University of Technology, Sydney.