Housing Boom or Blame Boom?

There’s talk again of the house price boom (or even bubble). I know people who are looking to buy at the moment, and I feel so lucky that I’m not having to find a first home in the current market.

However, stories I read in the media suggest to me that we’re also in the midst of a blame game, where various bogeymen are out there pushing up prices to the detriment of everyone else. If you believe everything you read, we can blame:

  • First-home buyers – whose free cash from the government in the form of the FHOG (First Home Owners Grant) is making it hard for others to compete.
  • Overseas investors – who are apparently making the most of relaxed rules from the FIRB (Foreign Investment Review Board) to invest in Australia when other international markets are looking shaky and depressed.
  • Local investors (in particular Baby Boomers and Gen X) – whose access to the tax deduction of negative gearing enables them to sustain larger holding costs of property than non-investors.
  • Developers – who have been slowly releasing lots from their land banks rather than supplying enough to the market to meet the demand
  • Immigrants – who have been coming here in increasing numbers because it has a promising way of life but are now competing with the locals for somewhere to stay.
  • Governments – for allowing all of the above to occur.

Is there anyone left?

What is good in this debate is the recognition that it is supply and demand that is driving the prices in the market. However, the purpose of this finger-pointing seems to be to blame everybody else for the problem. I’m not convinced that any of the above factors are at the heart of the matter:

  • First-home buyers – the demand from these guys doesn’t explain why an unrenovated house in Richmond sells for more than $2m (as I read in yesterday’s paper). The whole market is booming, not just the cheaper end.
  • Overseas investors – although they are active, they are still a minority. I don’t think they could underpin the entire boom.
  • Local investors – negative gearing also results in lower rents than would otherwise occur, which should in turn reduce the demand for home ownership.
  • Developers – their land is generally at the fringe, and there is heavy demand in the centre.
  • Immigrants – these are a net benefit to a society, since they generate taxes and jobs, but have always been an easy target.
  • Governments – there is some truth to the saying that in a democracy, we get the government that we deserve. If governments continue to follow policies that we don’t agree with, we can only blame ourselves for voting them in.

On the other hand, a factor that I don’t think has gotten enough attention is our culture. In particular, the “Australia dream” of owning a house on a block of land.

I worry that it is the pursuit of this goal, more than any single segment of society, that is driving the demand for houses in the suburbs of our capital cities. We need to give up on this dream if we are to achieve sufficient densities in the inner ring of suburbs where most people wish to live.

Rather than blaming other people, I can fess-up to being as guilty as everybody else on this one. A couple of years back, Kate and I bought a house together that would’ve housed a family of five when it was designed and built around 1900 in Kensington. This is a typical, gentrified, ex-working-class neighborhood of Melbourne that probably has lower densities now than when it was new. We moved out after we had our first child, because it was too small for us (!).

In the same way that governments around the world have influenced the cultural desires for a certain family size, it ought to be possible to embark on a campaign to change our cultural expectations and change this demand factor. Make living in high-density accommodation the trendy option. Guilt people out of their large houses with empty rooms and private back yards. (Other countries have a higher density of living than us, hence why many immigrants are willing to live in apartment blocks that locals would avoid; another reason why immigrants aren’t contributing as much to the problem.)

At the same time, there needs to be more direct incentive to motivate people to embark on such a change. Make subdivision easier. Make building apartments on new land easier. Ensure that apartment blocks are built well (good climate control and sound/smell proofing) and there is provision for common outdoor areas.

I’ve spent most of my years since I left home living in higher density accommodation such as apartments and townhouses. Although I’m currently living in a house, I think I’d be willing to share walls again.

Free(dom) plug

So, apparently this year is an election year, and we’ll be forced to choose between the policies of Rudd and Abbott. But whatever happens, it is going to be full of crazy stuff, because election years always are.

Unfortunately, some of the crazy stuff is likely to go beyond ordinary crazy, and be crazily bad. One example is the proposed Internet filter. It must appeal to voters in key marginal seats, or something, because it’s hard to see any good reason to introduce such a thing.

On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons why it would be a terrible idea. If this is an issue you care about, you’ve heard them already, so I won’t rehash them here. Although, today Senator Conroy publicly released the submissions that various people and companies made on the proposal, and it was clear that there was wide condemnation that the proposal was unworkable, ineffectual and would prevent legitimate uses.

Since I’m not able to effectively fight against it myself, I’ve donated some money to the EFA (Electronic Frontiers Australia) to go into bat for me. They make it more likely that we’ll all have the freedom to use the Internet unencumbered by crazy stuff like filters. The EFA is a volunteer-run organisation that survives on donations and is currently running a fund-raising campaign. This is just a free plug to say: help them out and they’ll help us all out.

Support EFA

Is PlayTV a good PVR?

Image via Wikipedia

For Christmas, we bought a Sony PS3 bundle that included a PS3 Slim 250GB unit, a Bluray Disc remote control, and a PlayTV peripheral. Before buying it, I read a few reviews on it, spoke to some PS3 owners, skimmed through the Whirlpool forum posts on PlayTV, and started to think that it would be a good PVR. It was also cheaper and larger than the TiVo 160GB units that were on sale at the time.

However, now that we’ve been using it for a few months, I now know whether it is a good PVR.

What it has going for it:

  • Has a very slick and responsive user interface. It’s moderately easy to use, although you need to be comfortable using the Sony square/circle/triangle/cross buttons to move in and out of menus.
  • Records SD and HD. A 250GB unit can record about 30 hours of HD programming, given that Australian HD TV channels currently consume about 6GB per hour.
  • Can either record a given channel/day/time or specify a show (which can be found via a text search of the EPG – Electronic Programme Guide), including repeat recordings. If you specify a show, the PlayTV will adjust the recording times if the EPG start/end times are updated (which they sometimes are on most channels, except Nine and Go!).
  • TV programs are recorded exactly as they are received off the air, in their MPEG-2 Transport Stream, so if you later want to read the subtitles, they are available.
  • You can copy recorded programs (up to 4GB) from the device onto an external USB stick or drive. Although, it does require some fussing around.
  • Can pause live TV and then fast-forward through ads to get back to the live TV programme.
  • Even though it is “just” a peripheral to a games console, it functions as you would expect, recording shows even when you are using the PS3 to do other things, and also turning itself on to record shows if you’ve previously turned it off.
  • The fact that the Bluray Disc remote is based on Bluetooth (wireless) rather than InfraRed means that it doesn’t need to be pointed towards the unit to work. This has proved particularly useful with a toddler in the house that loves to press the buttons on the front of the PS3. The PS3 can be turned so that the front is not visible from the front of our TV cabinet but the remote control keeps working.
  • The PS3 also provides the ability to watch ABC iView (although you need to pick up a standard PS3 game controller rather than the BluRay Disc remote), BluRay Discs / DVDs, and has a web browser that allows you to get to most web sites (including YouTube).

What is not so good about it:

  • It can record only one show at a time. Even though it’s got two tuners, it uses one of them for recording, and one for watching.
  • It is Freeview compliant. This means that the Australian version is crippled compared to the overseas versions, with the ability to skip ads or fast-forward at super-high speed removed. You can set the unit to operate in the mode of a different country, e.g. UK, but you lose the ability to tune in UHF channels like those of SBS.
  • It is overly sensitive to noise or interference on the antenna. If you live in a low signal area, use splitters or extension leads, then you could very well find that you experience visual stuttering when using PlayTV, even if other digital TV devices perform fine. Replacing our RF cable with a higher quality one helped reduce the stuttering a bit.
  • There is no RF-out (like you might find on a VCR or even TiVo), so if you want multiple devices in the room to receive TV signal, you’ll need to put in an RF splitter between your wall point and the PlayTV. Unfortunately, this will increase signal loss along the cables, and may increase the visual stuttering or worse. When I tried adding a splitter to our set-up, we lost several channels in the PlayTV.
  • The Bluray Disc remote lacks several buttons that we regularly use (and are on our TV remote), specifically mute and subtitle on/off. The lack of volume control is not such a big deal, as the PlayTV normalises volumes to a pre-set level.
  • The EPG is populated with information extracted out of the channels as they are watched. This means that the quality is variable, and not all the information is present when you turn on the device. Also, even after the full EPG (shows all channels) has information, the mini EPG (shows information for the channel being currently watched) sometimes does not. Other PVRs either have their own EPG feed or can make use of a third-party feed like IceTV.
  • Although you can add additional time to the end of a show to record it in case it runs over the scheduled time, the most you can add is 10 minutes. This is sometimes not enough, and we’ve missed out seeing the endings of quite a few programmes.
  • The PS3 DVD player is one of the few sold in Australia that is region-locked, without an easy way of removing the lock. We have a number of overseas DVDs that we can’t play in it.
  • The software (even though it is currently v1.21) still feels immature. There are a number of annoying bugs that have somehow slipped through the QA testing. For example, although you can jump directly to a channel by typing in the channel number, it doesn’t work for channels higher than #023. Also, the live TV buffer fills up after 30 minutes of buffering and then stops working (you can’t watch from the buffer any more and need to return to the live TV show). Also, sometimes its parsing of the EPG data sometimes goes a bit skewiff, and we’ve had it record 2.5 hrs for a 1 hr show. I hope these are all fixed in later updates.

In summary, I would not currently recommend the PlayTV as a PVR, compared to others with similar prices. Certainly, if you are considering getting one, borrow one from someone and check to see if you get all the channels and any visual stuttering before you buy.

We are mostly used to our PlayTV now. Although, I would like to get someone in to check out our TV antenna system at some point, because if we could get rid of the stuttering, the PlayTV would be a nice, basic PVR.

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