Around the world, soaring borrowing costs are squeezing homebuyers and property owners alike.

From Sydney to Stockholm to Seattle, buyers are pulling back as central banks raise interest rates at the fastest pace in decades, sending house prices falling. Meanwhile, millions of people who borrowed cheaply to purchase homes during the pandemic boom face higher payments as loans reset.

The rapid cooldown in real estate — a leading source of household wealth — threatens to worsen a global economic downturn. While the slump so far isn’t near the levels of the 2008 financial crisis, how the decline plays out is a key variable for central bankers who want to tamp down inflation without hurting consumer confidence and triggering a deep recession.

Already, frothy markets such as Australia and Canada are facing double-digit house-price declines, and economists believe the worldwide downswing is only getting started.

“We will observe a globally synchronized housing market downturn in 2023 and 2024,” said Hideaki Hirata of Hosei University, a former Bank of Japan economist who co-authored an International Monetary Fund paper on global house prices. He warns the full impact of this year’s aggressive rate hikes will take time to play out for households.

“Sellers often overlook signs of shrinking demand,” he said. 

Higher real estate financing costs hit economies in multiple ways. Households with loans tighten their belts, while rising mortgage payments discourage would-be buyers from entering the market, dragging on property prices and development.

The slowdown is a stark turnaround from a boom fueled by central banks’ easy-money policies in the years after the financial crisis and then supercharged by a pandemic that sent people searching for bigger spaces and remote-work-friendly homes. Now, many people who paid record prices face loans due to reset higher just as soaring inflation and a potential recession hit.

“Young families that have taken on debt have never experienced in their lifetime a sharp rise in interest rates at a time when their real, inflation-adjusted wages are falling,” said Rob Subbaraman, head of global markets research at Nomura Holdings Inc. “This could come as quite a shock to them.”

Variable Risk
How exposed borrowers are to rising rates varies notably by country. In the US, for instance, most buyers rely on fixed-rate home loans for as long as 30 years. Adjustable-rate mortgages represented, on average, about 7% of conventional loans in the past five years. By contrast, other nations commonly have loans fixed for as little as a year, or variable-rate mortgages that move closely in line with official interest rates.

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