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what the census tells us about housing

  • Written by Rachel Ong ViforJ, ARC Future Fellow & Professor of Economics, Curtin University

On the surface, the latest census tells us home ownership has changed little over the past five years. Between the 2016 census and this census in 2021, the share of Australians owning their homes remained steady at about 66%[1].

The proportion renting also changed little, climbing from 30% to 30.6%.

But a closer look reveals bigger long-term changes.

Read more: More of us are retiring with mortgage debts. The implications are huge[2]

While the proportion owning has slipped only two percentage points from 68% to 66% between 1996 and 2021, the proportion owning outright (without a mortgage) has plummeted from 42% to 31%.

The proportion mortgaged is nine percentage points higher. The proportion renting is four percentage points higher.

Most of the shift occurred between 2001 and 2006, which were the early years of the sustained home price boom.

As prices climbed, more Australians rented, and owner occupiers took on larger mortgages that took longer to pay off.

It’s the under 40s for whom things have changed the most

In younger age groups, the proportion owning a home has dived.

Between 1996 and 2021, the share of owners in households headed by 25-34 year olds sank from 50% to 43%.

This is part of a long-term decline that began in 1981.

Home ownership rates have also dived among Australians aged 35-44 and 45-54 too, but at a slower pace than for Australians aged 25-34.

A customised data report[3] prepared by the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows home ownership rates among Australians aged 65+ ticked up from 78.4% to 79.4% between 2016 and 2021 after sliding in the previous two censuses.

The downward trend in home ownership among the young and the upward trend in mortgaged rather than outright ownership show no signs of reversing, despite significant spending on first homebuyer subsidies and guarantees.

It depends on where you live

The changes have not been uniform throughout the country.

In South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania the proportion of households renting has barely changed since 1996. In the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory it has slipped.

But in Victoria the proportion of households renting has jumped 3%, in NSW it has jumped 4%, and in Queensland 3%.

The proportion of households owning outright unmortgaged has fallen 10-12% in Queensland, Victoria and NSW, 8% in South Australia and Western Australia, 6% in Tasmania, 3% in the ACT, and is unchanged in the Northern Territory.

Back in 1996, Victoria had the highest share of outright ownership at 44%. It is now below 32%, less than Tasmania (37%) and South Australia (33%).

A shift towards apartments

The proportion of households occupying freestanding houses fell from 82% to 72% between 1996 and 2021.

The proportion housed in apartments climbed from 8% to 14%

The shift has been more evident among owners than renters, suggesting buyers have to make greater sacrifices to obtain a home than they used to.

A shift towards agents

Not only are more of us renting (up from 28% in 2006 to 31% in 2021) but more of us are doing it through real estate agents.

Whereas in 2006 half of all rental properties were rented through agents, by 2021 it was two-thirds. Over the same 15 years, the share of rental homes rented from a state or territory housing authority slid from 15% to 10%.

The share of rental housing provided by the community sector changed little.

Much unknown

The census mainly provides population-wide snapshots, rather than tracing people through time.

This makes it hard to tell the extent to which people are moving out of home ownership and then back into it (and sometimes out of it again), along the lines suggested by my own research[4] using data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey.

Read more: No longer a one-way street, home ownership is becoming porous[5]

Nor does it provide much insight into whether the growing numbers of Australians having to rent will eventually own (mortgaged) homes.

Research by myself and colleagues in Britain and United States points to a “catch-up[6]” in which Americans and Australians denied home ownership when young attain it later in life.

One thing the census puts beyond doubt is that more of us are renting and more of us are mortgaged rather than owning outright compared with 20 years ago.


  1. ^ 66% (
  2. ^ More of us are retiring with mortgage debts. The implications are huge (
  3. ^ customised data report (
  4. ^ my own research (
  5. ^ No longer a one-way street, home ownership is becoming porous (
  6. ^ catch-up (

Authors: Rachel Ong ViforJ, ARC Future Fellow & Professor of Economics, Curtin University

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