Amanda Sinclair and her partner had a dream of living cheaply by the beach, and had wanted to move to the Illawarra for five years but were forced to remain living in Sydney for work.
By ABC staff
That all changed when COVID-19 forced a rethink on working from home, and the couple finally saw an opportunity to move south to Wollongong.
“When COVID hit, he was able to work online and we were able to make it to Wollongong and live our dream,” she said.
“I think because of COVID they now recognise that he can work part-time from home. Originally, when he wanted to move to Wollongong, they said it was too far away and they needed him to be closer.”
The couple is one of many rethinking their city lives and lifestyles, and deciding they have held off on their great escape for long enough.
As a result, property prices in regional NSW are exploding and housing demand is outstripping supply like never before.
One downside is that many locals are being priced out of the market, rental prices are increasing and wait times for social housing are ballooning.
Coffs Harbour-Grafton region booming
The Coffs Harbour-Grafton region on the state’s mid-north coast has experienced the strongest property price growth in the three months to September 2020, with the quarter on quarter median sale price up 8.70 per cent, according to the latest data from realestate.com.au.
And the rental vacancy rate has dropped from 3 per cent in November 2019 to just 0.7 per cent in September.
Local real estate agent Mark Webb said he had seen good sales activity in the past three or four months and was hoping to see more people buying investment properties to house would-be tenants.
“Some of our open houses we’re seeing 30, 40, 50 people through,” he said.
“We can take between 10 and 20 applications on each, and this is putting pressure on rents.”
People ‘reassessing their life and lifestyle’
Mr Webb said he thought the trend was here to stay.
“In 24 years, I’ve never seen it like this on the Coffs coast,” he said.
“We’re getting enquiries from all over Australia, even when COVID was at its peak.
“A lot of people are reassessing their life and lifestyles, their work environment, so with the influx of people coming here nowadays there’s a big proportion of those that will stay here long term, I think.”
Ms Sinclair said she didn’t foresee a move back to Sydney, even if her partner’s work required him to return to the city.
“I think we’ll try and make this work,” she said.
“When we first moved here, my husband said, ‘I don’t want to get stuck in Wollongong’. We were here for two weeks, and he said, ‘I love it. I don’t want to ever move.'”
Up-front rent ‘not good’ for locals
Before the pandemic hit, the village of Bangalow, over the hill from Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, was already experiencing steady growth.
According to the REA Group, Bangalow house prices had seen the strongest growth in Australia over the past 20 years, increasing by 1,281.0 per cent.
Bangalow-based agent Ali Page said the interest in properties across the Northern Rivers region was not good news for everyone.
“Twenty inquiries a day for our rental properties, and the vacancy factor is so small,” she said.
“Seeing people coming into the area and offering to pay rent up front, or increased rent, that’s probably not good for our community as a whole.”
The author of the REA Group’s Regional Australia Report, Nerida Conisbee, said Bangalow was receiving about 12,000 views per listing on their website, compared with a Melbourne CBD apartment, which might see about 500 views per listing.
She said the “extreme” price growth was bittersweet.
“On the one hand we tend to celebrate price growth… (but) when you look at what’s been happening in Byron Bay and the region (Northern Rivers), we are getting quite Sydney-like in terms of pricing,” Ms Conisbee said.
“Obviously the job conditions are quite different… so if you are a first-home buyer or you’re looking to rent, it can be very challenging.”
Rental pressure affecting the vulnerable
Further south, the pressure on rentals is leaving those most vulnerable out in the cold.
Single mum Kelly Goff has been looking for a rental home in Coffs Harbour since March.
Unable to find a permanent home, she and her three children are living in two rooms, temporarily with a friend, while she looks for something more permanent.
But with dozens of people attending some open homes, Ms Goff said it was difficult.
“The last place I went to, the line up was four houses down. There’s just so many people and there’s a lot of couples, and I just get disheartened sometimes and think, is it even worth me looking?”
She said eight months of uncertainty was taking its toll.
“Some days are a huge fight to stay positive and keep going. After you get so many rejections, it can take a toll, but you’ve got to pick yourself up and keep going.”
VESPA: ‘Virus Escapees Seeking Provincial Australia’
Demographer Bernard Salt said the current squeeze on regional and coastal communities was a result of Australian’s obsession with lifestyle.
“I think the common denominator between Australians of today and 50 years ago, is that we are all obsessed with lifestyle,” Mr Salt said.
“It’s lifestyle that took us to the suburbs, it’s lifestyle that took us to sea change and tree change to retire.
“What the pandemic has done is that it’s shown employees and employers that many jobs can be done remotely.”
Mr Salt came up with an acronym to describe what he saw as a major shift in Australia — ‘VESPA’, or virus escapees seeking provincial Australia.
“Why would you work from home from Parramatta, or Dandenong, when you could work from Bangalow, or Byron?” he said.
“It’s not for everyone, but you only need 1 per cent of 1 per cent of metropolitan Australians to make that choice and have a big impact on those communities.”
Ms Conisbee said since the pandemic, there had been an acceleration of interest in areas like Byron Bay, where property prices increased by almost 30 per cent in the three months to September.
“The Byron Bay region now has global appeal,” she said.
“Typically people from the US will look at very iconic suburbs like Bondi and Manly, but now Byon Bay is actually topping the list of where people from the US are looking.”
‘The Manhattan effect’
Mr Salt said communities as a whole stood to suffer from upward pressure on the housing market.
He called it the ‘Manhattan effect’, in that lower-paid service workers were being forced out of communities, and then needed to commute in order to service the needs of the wealthy.
“You need a diversity of skills and income groups to make a community work, and when you have this rapid uplift in property values, you risk the possibility of some people — these essential workers — not being able to live in that community,” he said.
Strongest price growth in regional NSW
|New South Wales||Median price||Quarterly change*|
|Coffs Harbour – Grafton||$543,500||8.7%|
|Mid North Coast||$527,000||8.3%|
|Richmond – Tweed||$680,000||6.3%|
Whilst she would not be drawn on the forthcoming state budget, NSW Property and Housing Minister Melinda Pavey said COVID had sharpened her eye to some of the emerging challenges.
“We’re prepared to face those challenges, but it’s not just up to government,” she said.
“That’s why we’re having these conversations and round tables with all parts of the sector, whether it be builders, real estate agents or social housing providers, to hear what they have to say about those solutions.
“Even approvals through council can sometimes be challenging.
“It is a challenge that we have to address and look at and work with all sectors of the economy, whether it’s our recreational home caravan parks, our aged care providers, land and housing or our community housing providers, or even looking at some of our planning and encouraging more land release.”
Canberra, NSW Central West not immune
While the lure of a beachside lifestyle appeals to many, the charm of close-knit inland communities is also driving growth in the property market.
Median house prices have grown 5.61 per cent in the capital region near Canberra in the three months to September 2020, while the central west of New South Wales has seen an increase of 3.7 per cent.
Strongest price growth by regional suburb in NSW
|New South Wales||2000||2020||% change|
Rental vacancy rates in the central west had also moved from an already tight 1.8 per cent in November 2019 to just 0.3 per cent — the lowest rental vacancy rate in the state alongside the south coast.
In August, Riverina real estate agent Geoff McGilvray said the demand for farming properties in all categories was unprecedented.
“It seems to be that wherever you are is very saleable, and at a price level that’s not been achieved in previous times,” Mr McGilvray said.
“Everyone has an example of where the prices have really been turned on their heads.”
Caitlin Furlong, Hannah Ross, Melissa Martin, Timothy Fernandez and Bruce Mackenzie contributed reporting.
First published at the ABC Coffs Coast – Monday 16 November 2020. See; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-16/northern-nsw-property-byron-bay-bangalow-coffs-wollongong/12876464