The Census captures information about unoccupied dwellings on Census night.

There were 191,649 unoccupied private dwellings as at Census 2018. “Unoccupied dwellings” is often misreported in the media and represented as empty homes. That's incorrect.

"Unoccupied dwellings" contains a significant number of properties where residents were temporarily away on Census night. They might have been staying with friends/family, away for business, or on vacation. To report these as empty homes is misleading as it includes a large number of properties that are usually occupied.

So, is it possible to identify the number of empty homes from the Census?

Yes. The Census further classifies “Unoccupied dwellings” into two sub-categories:

Unoccupied dwellings
Residents away
Includes homes that were known to be temporarily unoccupied on Census night. They are not considered to be empty.
Empty dwellings
Includes properties that are determined to be empty by using both Census responses and other administrative data and processes used by StatsNZ.

The number of actual private empty dwellings in New Zealand on Census night 2018 was recorded at 94,197.

Were there really 40,000 ghost houses in Auckland at the last Census?

No. Auckland is often the focus of media coverage when reporting on empty homes. It has been reported that there are nearly 40,000 “unoccupied dwellings” (or 'ghost houses') in Auckland. Claims are made that the number of empty homes are increasing.

Whilst it's true “unoccupied dwellings” is increasing, a closer look at the sub-categories tells a very different story when it comes to "empty dwellings".

Let's take a look at the numbers for the Auckland local authority:

Private dwellings in the Auckland local authority
Empty Total Rate
Census 2006 23,304 471,939 4.94%
Census 2013 22,152 505,404 4.38%
Census 2018 17,130 538,182 3.18%

Overall, the number of empty homes in Auckland has reduced in every Census since 2006, and so too has the rate of empty homes as a percentage of total private housing stock.

Let's take a look at the rest of New Zealand...

Census 2018 - Private dwellings by local authority
Local authority Empty Total Rate
Far North District2,76029,4729.36%
Whangarei District2,76637,8877.30%
Kaipara District1,85112,03015.39%
Thames-Coromandel District8,34925,52432.71%
Hauraki District3759,2284.06%
Waikato District1,28127,6754.63%
Matamata-Piako District44413,8453.21%
Hamilton City1,46458,1642.52%
Waipa District60620,8352.91%
Otorohanga District3904,2429.19%
South Waikato District5199,6725.37%
Waitomo District3994,2429.41%
Taupo District3,58220,68217.32%
Western Bay of Plenty District1,64722,0447.47%
Tauranga City1,69855,6233.05%
Rotorua District1,31428,4644.62%
Whakatane District81014,1905.71%
Kawerau District902,7333.29%
Opotiki District3664,2338.65%
Gisborne District75618,4384.10%
Wairoa District3514,1168.53%
Hastings District1,06230,4443.49%
Napier City54925,2122.18%
Central Hawke's Bay District3336,2975.29%
New Plymouth District1,20333,5793.58%
Stratford District1954,0564.81%
South Taranaki District68411,9555.72%
Ruapehu District1,2187,00817.38%
Whanganui District71419,7103.62%
Rangitikei District4956,6757.42%
Manawatu District50712,2854.13%
Palmerston North City86132,6342.64%
Tararua District4297,8905.44%
Horowhenua District1,15815,6937.38%
Kapiti Coast District1,38624,7985.59%
Porirua City40218,7652.14%
Upper Hutt City37516,7132.24%
Lower Hutt City89739,4562.27%
Wellington City2,21780,1092.77%
Masterton District80111,3557.05%
Carterton District2134,1165.17%
South Wairarapa District5585,6649.85%
Tasman District1,50023,0016.52%
Nelson City50121,2102.36%
Marlborough District2,00122,1499.03%
Kaikoura District2552,22011.49%
Buller District6035,57110.82%
Grey District5046,5407.71%
Westland District5224,73711.02%
Hurunui District8856,72313.16%
Waimakariri District62123,4542.65%
Christchurch City6,732151,9684.43%
Selwyn District1,01422,6744.47%
Ashburton District88214,6376.03%
Timaru District89420,8834.28%
Mackenzie District1,1133,51631.66%
Waimate District3633,8829.35%
Chatham Islands Territory273308.18%
Waitaki District1,00211,4008.79%
Central Otago District1,01110,9719.22%
Queenstown-Lakes District3,10519,13716.23%
Dunedin City1,76452,5333.36%
Clutha District8678,61610.06%
Southland District1,92315,21312.64%
Gore District2555,5624.58%
Invercargill City63323,0552.75%

Is there anything else to take into account when looking at the numbers at a local authority level?

Whilst some of the empty home rates are higher than others, it's important not to jump to conclusions. Some can be easily explained because they are holiday destinations with high densities of holiday homes. It's also important to recognise that even for local authorities with lower empty home rates, there can still be significant diversity when you inspect more closely. The following map breaks these numbers down further (to the SA2 level).

Empty home rates from Census 2018 (SA2)

Are there any limitations to the empty homes numbers from the Census?

Yes. The Census is a point-in-time measure conducted every five years. It can’t give an accurate picture of the number of empty homes today. There are also limitations to the types of information collected and the level of detail. The Census is useful, however, for understanding trends over time and identifying patterns.

Numbers from the Census convey some, but not all, of the story about empty homes. Property ownership and use is constantly changing. The Census can’t identify:

  • why properties were empty,
  • how long properties were empty,
  • or the future intentions for the property.

This information is important to understand in order to explore solutions that could bring empty homes back into the housing supply. It can be easy to jump to conclusions about homes that are left empty. However, there can be many contributing factors and reasons that need to be better understood. How property owners use their homes is a personal decision. The Empty Homes project sought firstly to understand the reasons for homes being empty, without judgement, by engaging directly with property owners across New Zealand. This was the first project of this nature to be undertaken in New Zealand.

Are there any other sources of information that can help identify empty home rates?

Other than the Census, it can be challenging to find available and current data sources to identify empty home rates. The Empty Homes project connected with a number of stakeholders to explore potential data sources that could identify more current empty home rates and densities across New Zealand. Unfortunately, there was no appetite from these stakeholders to either respond or to assist with non-identifiable data.

For privacy reasons, the Empty Homes project did not collect addresses of individual properties. What this project was interested in was the percentage of properties that met relevant criteria that might indicate an empty home.

Why are homes left empty?

There can be many reasons for homes being empty, including properties that are:

  • used for short-term accommodation, such as baches.
  • second residences, used intermittently.
  • in between ownership and are temporarily vacant.
  • held under estate / probate.
  • temporarily unoccupied for maintenance, renovation or development.
  • normally rented, but in between tenants.
  • awaiting consents or codes of compliance.
  • awaiting insurance claims.
  • being decontaminated.
  • being repurposed for different use.
  • used for seasonal workers with varying demand.

It’s also important to consider how long homes are left empty. Some of the factors above have a short-term impact on how long properties sit empty. Some of these properties will naturally return to the housing supply. Some are empty due to external factors that take time to remedy. In this case, being empty is not a signal that there is an intent to leave a the property permanently empty.

Is it normal to have some empty homes in the housing supply?

Yes. Experts have advised that a typical housing stock has between 2.5% and 3.5% of homes that are empty. There are exceptions though, such as in large geographical areas with low populations (e.g., rural or mountainous areas). Regardless, a high empty home rate does not necessarily signal an issue such as extensive land-banking.

This is a complicated issue. In areas with high rates of empty homes, the normal resident population, the size of the area, demand for housing, and whether those areas are holiday destinations must also be considered.