The 10 big risks faced by Australian property investors

These are 10 of the traditionally pre-eminent guises of investment risk, but specifically as they apply to Australian property investors.

1. Market risk (or systematic risk)

Market risk may affect all investments in an asset class in a similar manner, such as in the event of a market-wide price crash. As such, market risk that cannot easily be mitigated through diversification. While buying properties in different states might diversify market risk to a partial extent, if the wider property market crashes, diversification is unlikely to assuage the systematic risk successfully.

Property investors should additionally invest in other asset classes that tend to move in a non-correlated manner to real estate. Property investors can also focus upon a longer investment time horizon which allows correcting markets greater opportunity to recover.

2. Liquidity risk

Equates to the possibility that an investor may be unable to buy or sell an investment when desired (or in sufficient quantities) due to limited opportunities.

Illiquidity is a salient risk in real estate. It is difficult to sell a property quickly should the need arise, which is not the case for large-cap stocks or government bonds. Liquidity risk in Australian property is best mitigated through investing in landlocked capital city suburbs with eminent demand and constrained supply.

3. Specific risk (or unsystematic/business risk)

Equities investors and fund managers talk much of specific or business risk, being the measure of risk associated with a particular stock or security. Also known as unsystematic risk, this typically refers to the risk associated with a specific issuer of a security. Businesses in the same industry may have similar types of business risk, and issuers of stocks or bonds may become insolvent or lack ability to pay the interest and principal in the case of bonds.

Specific risk in property investment is somewhat different, and rather relates to the risk of acquiring a loss-making property or one which delivers sub-optimal returns giving rise to opportunity cost. Specific risk can be mitigated through diversification, although this can represent a challenging proposition in property as dwellings tend to be expensive.

One frequently invoked strategy of property investors is to acquire different types of property in different states. Careful, detailed due diligence and research of any property purchase also tends to reduce (if not eliminate) specific risk.

4. Interest rate risk

Normally refers to the possibility that a fixed-rate debt instrument will decline in value as a result of a rise in interest rates. Where an investor buys a security offering a fixed rate of return, he introduces an exposure to interest rate risk. Examples thereof including bonds and preference shares (preferred stocks).

In Australian investment property, the interest rate risk instead lies in variable rate mortgages as the cost of debt capital can materially increase when the Reserve Bank ratchets up the cash rate. The risk can be mitigated through the use of fixed-rate mortgages and prudent cashflow management.

5. Foreign exchange risk (or currency risk)

Arises from a movement in the price of one currency against another. When the Australian dollar appreciates, the value of foreign investments declines. Conversely, if the dollar weakens the value of foreign investments effectively increase.

Presently the strong Aussie dollar attracts investors to overseas investments, in particular to US real estate. A good strategy? Maybe. Our dollar may depreciate, and regional US property markets have corrected. But is there a foreign exchange risk in investing overseas? Absolutely, for exchange rates are inherently unpredictable. Few commentators in 2008 opined that the Aussie dollar could ever be worth 110 US cents, and yet it indeed became so.

Currency risk tends to be greater for shorter-term overseas investments, which have insufficient time to revert to a mean valuation in the same manner as longer-term equivalent ventures.