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Global housing market trends and COVID-19

Few people in few places remain unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Aetna International was keen to explore the pandemic’s potential impact on expats — beyond their health.

An essential aspect of international relocation is finding a new home. Whether rented or owned, an expat’s home is a keystone in their new life abroad: a safe place in a new country — and often a new culture. But with COVID-19 affecting international travel, local economies and personal plans, we wanted to uncover the current and new trends in global housing markets and answer: How has the pandemic changed the housing landscape across the world?

Using data from Numbeo, we analysed house price, mortgage and rental metrics from 2015 onwards, to predict how specific markets ‘should’ have looked in 2020. We then compared these predictions to the latest data to identify unusual trends that could be attributed to COVID-19 and its knock-on effects. 

Metrics used in our analysis

  • Price-to-rent ratio shows the average cost of ownership divided by the estimated rent for properties in city centres and those outside the city centre. Lower values suggest that it is better to buy rather than rent, and higher values suggest that it is better to rent rather than buy
  • Price-to-income is the ratio of apartment prices to average disposable income. Lower values mean more affordable housing
  • Mortgage as a percentage of income is a ratio of the actual monthly cost of the mortgage to take-home family income. Lower values mean more affordable housing. 

Key findings: Housing markets affected by COVID-19

Our research has revealed the countries with the most significant changes to predicted housing market activity in 2020. 


The initial impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus was felt most in China, so it’s no surprise that COVID-19 has impacted the country’s housing market. 

While price-to-rent ratios both inside and outside city centres saw increases in line with predicted trends, the purchase market saw prices fall. Despite projected growth, the relative percentage change between mid-2019 and mid-2020 was -5.1% for mortgage as a percentage of income and -6.2% for price-to-income. 

Our findings reveal that, relatively speaking, house prices in China are falling. These low prices may explain the news reports from 2020 that show how house sales are booming in China – probably due to buyers taking advantage of affordable mortgages.


In Germany, both rental and purchase markets came in lower than predicted. Price-to-income and mortgage as a percentage of income both saw a decrease of 0.7%, while price-to-rent ratios dropped inside and outside the cities by 0.9% and 2.9% respectively. 

In general, these findings suggest that buying is more favourable than renting — house prices are more affordable and renting is more expensive.

This trend could be due to Germany’s proactive response to COVID-19, which was lauded as a success due to its effective track-and-trace methods and clearly communicated rules. As a result, the first wave of infections didn’t impact the country as badly as those with similar economies, such as the UK.

However, despite carefully managing the pandemic during the first wave, Germany saw large spikes in cases towards the end of 2020. So, while expats and nationals may be taking advantage of the attractive buying market, time will tell if this trend will continue or reverse. 

Hong Kong

Despite a few turbulent years, Hong Kong maintained a steady purchase and rental market through to mid-2019. However, in 2020, the rate of growth in the rental market slowed and both price-to-income ratio and mortgage as a percentage of income reversed their predicted trends.

In fact, price-to-income ratios dropped by 11.9% from mid-2019 to mid-2020, showing that house prices became more affordable for the average family.

Despite Hong Kong entering its fourth wave of COVID-19 at the end of 2020, news reports tend to focus on the impact of political unrest in the region more than the pandemic. For example, there have been suggestions that citizens are being given priority in house purchases as a way to ease tensions between locals and government. For expats, this may make it more difficult in the future to buy property in the region. 


While the rental market in Indonesia has followed its pre-pandemic trend, the purchase market has seen a notable deviation from predictions. Since mid-2019, mortgage as a percentage of income rose by 58.9% and price-to-income ratio increased by 41.3%, making housing far less affordable for the average family during the course of the pandemic. 

Unlike most countries, which have experienced one or more spikes in COVID-19 infections, Indonesia has seen a steady build of cases since the pandemic’s onset. The nation was criticised for its poor handling of the virus in its early months and reports have shown that the Indonesian economy is in recession.

It’s possible that as Indonesia struggles to find stability, the dramatic changes in housing affordability are part of the fallout.


Singapore was the first nation to introduce a COVID-19 tracing app – and to great success. Reports show that the island effectively ‘beat’ COVID-19, with rates remaining minimal since summer 2020. 

Our analysis suggests that the pandemic has impacted the housing market, with the emergence of more affordable purchasing options. After reaching relative highs in mid-2019 for price-to-income ratio and mortgage as a percentage of income, both of these metrics have since seen a downturn since the start of 2020. 

Price to rent ratios have also seen a drop in the most recent set of data from mid-2020 after increases earlier in the year. This means that the rent is a high proportion of the ownership cost, making buying a more attractive option.


In the UK, metrics for both the rental and housing markets increased in line with expected trends for the first data of 2020, but this reversed in mid-2020, when the impact of the pandemic reached its peak. However, the percentage changes have not been as dramatic as in some countries highlighted here — the biggest drop was 2.8% for price-to-rent outside the city. These findings suggest that housing is slightly more affordable and renting is slightly less attractive. 

Gordon Hunter, Managing Director of Super Contractors, based in the UK, said: “The general view (especially home movers) is that people who tended to work in offices are now looking to move house, with a view to having an extra room to convert into an office space, or to have a garden to sit out in with the family.”

The early 2021 data for price-to-income and mortgage as a percentage of income will be interesting to review. In summer, the government announced a temporary relief on tax when buying property (called stamp duty), making the market much more attractive for many buyers. 

“The stamp duty holiday ends in March [2021], which will hopefully support transaction levels at the beginning of the year,” added Gordon. “However, this is also when unemployment could potentially reach a peak. What happens after that will depend on the extent to which the economic recovery has gained a foothold (which, as things stand, presents the biggest risk to forecasts.)”


France has seen year-on-year increases in the metrics for both rental and purchase markets, mostly in line with the pre-pandemic trend. However, the price-to-rent ratio outside the city centres has seen a much larger increase  than expected, over 13.1% year-on-year. Relatively speaking, this means that renting in locations outside city centres is currently a more attractive option than buying.

One long-term rental agency revealed that their rental reservations increased by around 25% in 2020. They say that an increase in house sales usually follows this trend. 

Are these findings good or bad for expats?

Purchase market

A decrease in the purchase market is positive for expats currently buying or remortgaging as it means mortgages are more affordable. However, a continued decline in the market may mean that houses will lose value, making the decision to buy more difficult. People who hold off from purchasing until they can secure a cheaper price can further this deflation by stalling the market. 

  • Tal Shelef, Realtor and Co-Founder of Condo Wizard in Canada, said: “People are expecting to see a slowing down in the market activity as buyers and sellers alike will most likely face uncertain conditions. This may lead buyers to hold off their purchases for a while and for sellers to be more hesitant than ever in accepting a lower offer. However, this is only one part of the market, as there is still a large market of buyers and sellers who are highly motivated to buy and sell right now.”

Generally speaking, a more affordable housing market suggests a less competitive one – and competition is essential for market economies to thrive. As such, cheap mortgages tend to be unsustainable long-term — after all, banks need to make money, and if the asset values are low, they may respond with interest rate increases in future. 

In contrast, increases in purchase prices and the amount of income spent on mortgages signal that houses are becoming less affordable for the average family. This means that expats who buy houses now will be spending more money than they would have done if the predicted trend was not disrupted. 

Expensive mortgages may price some people out of the purchase market in these countries. However, for those who can afford to buy, their house values will continue to increase as long as the new trend continues - a tricky decision considering the market instabilities seen in 2020.  

  • Than Merrill, Founder and CEO of FortuneBuilders, based in the US, said: “At the very least, the pandemic has temporarily detracted from confidence in the housing sector on a global scale. Uncertainty brought about in the wake of COVID-19 has forced prospective buyers to reconsider making one of the largest purchases of their lives at a time when employment is far from a guarantee.”

Rental market

Increases in price-to-rent ratios means that renting could be a better option than buying at the present time. This is because it suggests that the rental costs are low in comparison to the mortgage being paid by the owner. 

In contrast, where price-to-rent ratios are decreasing, this means that rental costs (when considered as a proportion of the property value) are increasing. In this case, buying is more cost effective.

However, these figures shouldn’t be considered in isolation. For example, where renting may seem like a better option based solely on price-to-rent ratios, this doesn’t take into account trends in the purchasing market. It also doesn’t take into account availability. If renting is an attractive option, competition for rental properties will typically be high as people take advantage of the trend. 

Other housing market trends

Regardless of predicted trends, the housing market changes from year to year for both buying and renting. While there are certain markets that have remained relatively stable — such as South Africa, Brazil, Italy, Japan, Netherlands and Malaysia — most countries have seen increases or decreases in buying or renting. 

Price-to-income ratio: Top line trends

This section shows changes in the price of housing, relative to the average family income in that country, between mid-2019 and mid-2020. 

Top 10 biggest increases

  • The Philippines saw the biggest increase, from 23.63 to 29.92. This means that house prices are almost 30 times the average family income.
  • Sri Lanka’s increase of 5.38 sees the price of housing reach almost 35 times the average income.
  • Countries such as Chile and Poland have seen smaller increases (4.67 and 2.25 respectively) but their lower initial figure means that these changes will probably have the biggest impact for expats and nationals already living there. 
Country Mid-2019 Mid-2020 Change
Philippines 23.63 29.92 +6.29
Indonesia 15.05 21.27 +6.22
Sri Lanka 29.6 34.98 +5.38
Iran 24.88 29.83 +4.95
Chile 13.27 17.94 +4.67
Argentina 19.48 24.09 +4.61
South Korea 16.23 19.41 +3.18
Armenia 16.11 18.63 +2.52
Poland 10.95 13.2 +2.25
Czech Republic 14.44 16.43 +1.99

Top 10 biggest decreases

  • China and Hong Kong have both seen decreases, meaning the real cost of housing has reduced since the onset of the pandemic. However, Hong Kong still has one of the highest figures overall, standing at over 43 times income, despite the decrease.
  • The biggest drop has been seen in Cambodia, with a fall of over 6.5. However, again, the final value remains high (nearly 40 times average income).
  • Kazakhstan has seen the fifth biggest drop, taking the cost of housing to less than ten times that of average income.
Country Mid-2019 Mid-2020 Change
Serbia 19.41 17.9 -1.51
Ukraine 13.42 11.88 -1.54
Pakistan 14.14 12.46 -1.68
Nepal 25.9 24.19 -1.71
China 30.29 28.4 -1.89
Kazakhstan 11.69 9.36 -2.33
Algeria 19.88 17.37 -2.51
Azerbaijan 19.47 16.45 -3.02
Hong Kong 49.38 43.52 -5.86
Cambodia 46.47 39.89 -6.58

Rental market highlights 

This section highlights countries with notable changes to the price-to-rent ratio between mid-2019 and mid-2020.

Changes in favour of renting

  • Australia: Price-to-rent ratios inside and outside city centres have both seen increases since mid-2019
  • Qatar: The price-to-rent ratios both inside and outside the city centres have shown notable increases, with the price-to-rent ratio up by almost 15% outside city centres 
  • US: The price-to-rent ratio in city centre areas of the USA has seen a marked increase for mid-2020 – over 16% year-on-year
  • France: Price-to-rent ratios outside the city centre have seen a particularly big increase above the previous trend (up over 13% year-on-year).

Changes in favour of buying

  • Mexico: Price-to-rent ratios both inside and outside of the city centre have seen drops against the previous trend, with outside city centre data showing a decrease of almost 8%
  • Thailand: There has been a drop in price-to-rent ratio for city centre properties since the start of 2020, against the previously observed trend. This figure has fallen by more than 9%
  • Vietnam: Price-to-rent ratios outside city centres have fallen by over 7%
  • India: Price-to-rent ratios have seen a drop in 2020, indicating a slight strengthening of the market in favour of buyers.

House purchase trend highlights

This section will take a look at the purchase market, split by where houses are becoming more affordable and where they are becoming less affordable. 

House prices less affordable

  • Indonesia: Price-to-income and mortgage as a percentage of income have both seen big increases, with the latter up by almost 60% year-on-year
  • Costa Rica: Mortgage as a percentage of income has seen a big surge since the relative low seen in the 2018 data
  • Canada: Price-to-income and mortgage as a percentage of income are increasing in line with the overall trend that has been observed in particular since 2018.
    • Tal Shelef, Realtor and Co-Founder of Condo Wizard in Canada, said: “Given that Canada has a rather large immigration hub and has been less hit by the pandemic compared to other countries, the housing market will most likely continue to rise in the foreseeable future.”

    House prices more affordable

    • Hong Kong: Price-to-income ratio and mortgage as a percentage of income have both seen decreases since before the pandemic
    • China: Price-to-income ratio and mortgage as a percentage of income have seen falls against the previous trend.


    House prices have become more affordable for the average family in countries such as China, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK. In contrast, France and Indonesia have seen housing prices increase (relative to average income).

    The countries we analysed have experienced and reacted to the pandemic in different ways. Some have been praised for their response to the crisis, while others have been criticised. Some have minimised its impact, others are experiencing second, third and even fourth waves. 

    “Prices have fluctuated in nearly every market, with the majority declining modestly,” added Than Merrill, Founder and CEO of FortuneBuilders. “However, individual governments have enacted their own safety measures to maintain activity. Whether it’s lower interest rates, new construction, or increased incentives, every country is doing what they can to make housing look more enticing.”

    The pandemic is moving quickly and its impact is fast. It is therefore difficult to draw any definitive conclusions about how markets have reacted to COVID-19 until markets and economies stabilise. Still, our findings clearly indicate that the pandemic has affected global housing market trends. 

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