Not quite the ‘sardines can’ society: 2011 Census shows average household size remains steady at 2.6 persons per dwelling

There was a great deal of speculation before the release of the 2011 Census that the average household size would actually rise across Australia due to the population growing at a faster rate than dwelling construction. The logic was that we might start to see more families under one roof as families look for ways to cope with housing affordability, kids were staying at home longer with mum and dad and the birth rate was on the rise.  The results came as a bit of a surprise; the average household size remained steady at 2.6 persons per dwelling; the same average as what was recorded in 2006 and in 2001.

Looking at the data, it is clear that several factors have provided some counterbalance that has kept the household size steady.

Firstly, the rise in couple families without children (+20.3% between 2001 and 2011), one parent families (+16.8% between 2001 and 2011), lone person households (+16.9% between 2001 and 2011) well and truly grew at a faster pace than couple family with children households (+8.7% between 2001 and 2011).

Another reason for the steady average household number can be attributed to the rise in one and two person dwellings.  Between the 2001 Census and 2011 Census one person dwelling have increased in number by 16.9% and two person dwellings have increased by 17.5%.  In contrast, households with three persons occupying the dwelling have increased by a smaller 13.8% and four person dwellings have increased by 12.9%.

A further insight comes from the number of new dwellings which have been constructed.  The number of separate houses has increased by 14.0% since the 2001 Census, while unit dwellings have jumped by 26.4% and semi-detached homes such as townhouses have increased in number by 28%.  The rise in medium and high density dwellings will have pulled the average household size down.

As always though, there are areas that have bucked the trend.

The Australian suburb with the highest average household size is Welshpool, located in the Canning council of Western Australia where there are, on average, 7 people per household.  While this may seem extreme (and it is!), there are only 17 people living in the suburb of Welshpool and they all live in what the Census glossary describes as ‘A house or flat attached to a shop, office, factory or any other non-residential structure is included in this category’.  Considering Welshpool is primarily an industrial suburb, this comes as no surprise.

Applying some filters to the data set provides a much more interesting and realistic view on Australia’s household composition.  Looking at only those suburbs within the capital cities that have a population of 100 people or more shows the largest average household sizes are located primarily across Sydney’s Western Suburbs.  As can be seen in the top 20 table below, the vast majority of suburbs with at least 3.6 persons on average per household are located in the outer suburbs of Sydney.

Inherently, most of the suburbs with a large average household size show a predominance of detached dwellings as opposed to units or semi-detached homes which tend to be smaller and have fewer bedrooms.  Once again, no surprises that these areas area also predominantly occupied by families with kids.

What came as somewhat of a surprise to me was the fact that overseas migrants don’t seem to play as large a role as previously thought in pushing average household sizes upwards.  There was some speculation that the surge in overseas migrants may be another factor pushing household sizes higher under the false logic that many migrant families have larger families.  Eight of the 20 suburbs outlined above actually show a proportion of overseas born residents to be lower than the Australian average of 30.2%.

From city to city the average household size trends vary slightly.  It is interesting to note that the most affordable capital cities (Hobart and Adelaide) appear to have smaller household sizes than the larger capital cites (Hobart and Adelaide both show an average household size of 2.4 persons, the lowest of any capital city).  It stands to reason that lower home prices in these cities aren’t driving more people to live under one roof.

Looking at all the suburbs nationally where the average household size is greater than or equal to 4 persons (there are 100 of them) provides another interesting insight about our nations household composition.   Of those 100 suburbs where the average household size is 4 persons or more, only 8 have an aboriginal population that is less than 50% of the overall population.  It is well documented that aboriginals have larger household sizes and the 2011 Census shows the average household size for households with an aboriginal person have an average size of 3.3 persons compared with the national average of 2.6 persons.

Potentially the 2011 Census marks a turning point for household composition in Australia.  Although we are likely to see kids staying at home for longer and potentially more persons under one roof in an effort combat housing affordability, in the same sense we are likely to continue to see more lone person households and couples without kids that will drag the average down as well.  More families are choosing to live in units and townhomes, once again in an effort to find more affordable housing but also with the aim of living closer to where they work and play.

Will the average household size rise over the coming year? We might need to wait until the 2016 Census is delivered to find out.

About Tim Lawless

Tim heads up the RP Data research and analytics team, analysing real estate markets, demographics and economic trends across Australia

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One Response to Not quite the ‘sardines can’ society: 2011 Census shows average household size remains steady at 2.6 persons per dwelling

  1. Duncan July 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    I want to suggest that RPData is a source of speculation about household sizes growing, as I commented on the post form Cameron on June 1st, where Cameron states “we are seeing average household sizes increasing”.

    The ABS figures did not support the statement from Cameron, in which makes it speculation.


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