Census shows the national obsession with home ownership may be waning


ANALYSIS:We are becoming more continental in the ways in which we reside

THE NATIONAL obsession with home ownership may be waning.

The publication yesterday of the latest deluge of data from last year’s census shows we are becoming more continental in how we reside: not only are more people renting rather than buying but people increasingly choose to live in apartments; to live in towns and cities; and to live alone.

First, the two most foundational housing facts from the census.

1)The total number of homes in the State was a smidgen shy of two million last year – almost twice as many as a quarter of a century ago.

2)Of that number, 1.65 million were occupied; and the remainder vacant.

Almost all of the new information relates to occupied homes for the rather obvious reason that there was nobody in the vacant properties to fill in census forms.

Among the most eye-catching trends revealed in the latest batch of crunched numbers from census night is the large shifts in the three occupancy categories: renters; and owner occupiers who are of two types – those with mortgages and the debt-free who own their homes outright.

Ireland has traditionally had a very high owner occupancy rate compared with peer countries. By the 1990s, when it peaked, four out of five households had purchased their residence.

Among western European countries only in Spain has the obsession with ownership historically been greater and owner occupancy rates higher. (It may not be a coincidence that the Spanish have had one of Europe’s biggest property crashes.)

Among the 27 EU members as a whole, almost three in four households were owner-occupiers in 2009 (73.5 per cent, to be precise). Over the five years to 2011, Ireland not only fell to the EU average but crashed through it. Fewer than 70 per cent of homes were owned by their occupants on census night in April last year. That is a quite dramatic change.

What accounts for it?

Last year there were 567,000 homeowing households in the very happy position of having cleared their mortgages. These represented one in three of all households in the State.

That is 70,000 higher than 2006 but as a proportion of total households it is unchanged at one-third.

The proportion owning homes but paying money back to the banks, by contrast, declined sharply, accounting for all of the fall in owner occupancy. Given the dearth of new mortgage issuance since 2008, that is not a surprise.

Nor is it surprising that the third grouping by occupancy – renters – has grown rapidly. By last year three out of 10 households had landlords to pay.

Even less surprising is the trend towards apartment living. Among the more interesting factoids highlighted by statisticians yesterday was that half of all the flats in the State has been built since the turn of the century. The apartment-building boom was frenzied even by the standards of the time in the construction industry.

But the effect on overall living patterns should not be exaggerated – only a little more than one in 10 households now reside in flats.

If the rich world has long been moving towards multistorey apartment living, urbanisation has been an even wider and longer-in-evidence trend. The UN believes the number of the planet’s inhabitants living in towns and cities recently overtook country-dwellers for the first time in history.

That threshold was reached here more than 40 years ago, although the phenomenon is as much Leinsterisation as urbanisation. Connacht and Ulster remain two-thirds rural and only in the 1990s did more people in Munster live is towns than the countryside.

Leinster, which is the only province to have more inhabitants now than in pre-Famine times, was home to considerably more households than all the other provinces combined in 2011.

In the State as a whole, just over 36 per cent of households lived the rural life in 2011. That was – yet again – down on the previous census. But since the 1980s the pace of leaving the land has slowed.

It could be that advances in communications – from falling travel times because of better roads to being more in touch with the world via the miracle of broadband – have reduced the downsides of country living. Distance, it is sometimes said, has died. Its demise may be exaggerated but better communications may help slow the pace of rural depopulation.

Living life virtually may be driving another big social change – the rise and rise of the live-alones. One-person households numbered 390,000 last year and made up nearly one-quarter of the total. Their number grew by one-fifth in the five years to 2011. This trend should continue as the young and not so young seek to extend the carefree approach of youth, and greater wealth means they have the resources to run homes on their own.

This has raised concerns about the atomisation of society. But these may be overstated. When people have the freedom to choose, many seem to prefer the pleasures of solitude over those of constant companionship. Perhaps man is not such a social animal after all.


An interactive table showing private households in permanent housing units, broken down by nationality, type of private accommodation and census year, can be found at irishtimes.com. The information was mapped by  the All Island Research Observatory (Airo) using source data provided to it by the CSO. Further interactive tables from www.cso.ie/census