SOLVED: The mystery of Australia’s 1 million empty homes on census night

File Photo. Flooding in rural Victoria. by Gideon Mendel/In Pictures/Corbis via Getty Images

No-one was home when the statistician came calling at more than one million Australian homes – about 11.2% of all dwellings – on census night, August 9, last year.

Absentee landholders, sitting on properties and waiting to make a capital gain, aren’t to blame for the unoccupied residences, according to the latest analysis of the census.

The Australian dream of having an investment property as well as a main home, a factor often cited as contributing to rising property prices in Sydney and Melbourne, isn’t a key factor

And the rise of Airbnb, and the potential high returns from casual letting, isn’t to blame, although it may be an increasing factor, but hasn’t shown up yet in the statistics.

Analysis by SGS Economics and Planning suggests that the empty homes may not be a solution to the housing crisis or a way to encourage millennials to leave their parents’ home.

“There does not appear to be a large pool of dwellings being withheld from the housing market,” says economist Terry Rawnsley.

The reasons are many. The home may have been newly constructed but not yet occupied. It may have still been for sale or under offer. Or the dwelling was a deceased estate.

It may also have been a short term or long term rental property or a holiday home or was unoccupied due to the residents being away on holiday.

The 11.2% of unoccupied dwellings in 2016 is only 0.5 percentage points higher than the 2011 census. Unoccupied dwellings have consistently made up around 10% of dwellings in Australia in the past 35 years.

“With the 2016 census being broadly in line with historical levels we can’t blame investors intentionally leaving homes vacant or the rise of Airbnb,” says Rawnsley.

According to analysis by SGS Economics and Planning, holiday homes and absent residents (they live there but were away on census night) accounted for more than two thirds of all unoccupied dwellings.

Here’s the list of reasons why home were empty:


“Applying taxes to vacant properties will bring more dwellings onto the market, but these numbers would suggest that it would only be a very, very small percentage of unoccupied dwellings,” says Rawnsley.

Capital cities, where most Australians live, tend to have the lowest level of unoccupied dwellings, while less populated regional areas have higher rates.

Sydney’s rate of 7.3% empty is the lowest in the country, as this table shows:


The inner suburbs of Sydney have a slightly higher rate of around 9.5%, while the north west and south west growth areas tend to have slightly lower rates of unoccupied dwellings.

“Half of unoccupied dwellings are in regional areas, which really doesn’t fit the narrative of investors leaving properties vacant just for capital gains,” says Rawnsley.

Melbourne empty rate at 9.1% is higher than Sydney.

The Melbourne inner suburbs also had a higher percentage of unoccupied dwellings at 11.1%.

Rawnsley says this is probably due to the large supply of new dwellings completed around August 2016.

Mornington Peninsula has much higher levels of unoccupied dwellings at 22% because there are so many holiday homes and short term rentals.