Tree-change to e-change
Prepare for the e-change movement spreading across the country. Domain travelled to one small town to see what all the fuss is about.
Moving to a country town can seem like an attractive alternative to stratospheric real estate prices and high stress living in the city, but are there hidden costs involved?
A workday commute of a few minutes, rather than hours in the traffic, time to make it along to school and sporting events and the chance to buy a home at a price that won't see you enslaved to the bank until you're 75 … Moving from the big smoke to a country town can seem like an attractive alternative to stratospheric real estate prices and high stress living, for hard-pressed city folk.
So what kind of savings does regional relocation actually offer? And are there hidden costs associated with a small town shift?
Scott Robertson, 36, and wife Michelle, 35, believe they're in the black, a year after moving their business and young family to Wagga Wagga. Located approximately 450 kilometres from Sydney and Melbourne, the city has a population of around 55,000.
High housing and living costs in Sydney prompted a move back to the home town the pair had left 13 years earlier.
The Robertsons had been renting a two-bedroom unit in Neutral Bay for $650 a week but wanted something larger, following the arrival of their second child. Basic three-bedroom houses in the same area were letting for $900 to $1000 a week.
"The cost of living was so high we found we couldn't save for a deposit," Michelle says. "So our main reason to relocate was to be able to save money."
The pair run a graphic design business and have continued to service their Sydney clients remotely. They've retained space in a Surry Hills co-working space and Scott flies in once a fortnight for two or three days of client contact. Airfares cost between $120 and $150 each way and hotels around $150 a night.
Back in Wagga Wagga, the Robertsons rent a spacious four-bedroom house with a backyard for half what they would have had to spend in Sydney. Car insurance premiums have also halved, tolls and taxis are no longer in the budget, and childcare costs for son Charlie, 3, and daughter Lila, 1, are lower, thanks to family support.
They hope to be able to buy their own home later this year.
"The first 12 months was really a trial to see if it was going to work," Scott says. "It is working for us so we want to try to be here on a more permanent basis. There is a chance that if it doesn't work, one day, with the business we might have to go back but we're hoping that doesn't happen and [that] we do have enough saved if we do go back."
Feeling less under the pump financially makes for a happier home life, says Michelle.
"We don't have that financial stress of, 'how are we going to enter the market in Sydney?'," she says. "We're happier here because we feel like we can, that's achievable … you can get a beautiful home for around $400,000 here, which is just so unachievable in Sydney, it really is."
Former Melburnians Cathy Parry and Chris Guest also managed to transplant their small businesses – in their case, to the goldfields town of Castlemaine, 120 kilometres from the state capital, for similar reasons to the Robertsons.
They moved seven years ago, with one young son in tow and a second on the way, after despairing of ever owning a home in a city where prices were hovering at the $500,000 mark.
"Chris had friends in Castlemaine and we would visit regularly and after looking at a few other places we decided Castlemaine was the place that we wanted to be," Parry says.
"Because my partner's an architect he wanted to build for himself and we found a little block of land and it was something like $76,000, right in town."
Parry runs an industrial sewing business and while both she and Guest work locally, they travel to Melbourne about once a month. It's a 90-minute drive or a little longer on the train.
The costs of country living are lower but so too are opportunities to climb the greasy pole or pull in the big bucks, says Parry.
"We both set ourselves up so we would have a mix [of clients]," she says.
"Especially in a regional area, you do need to have a lot of different irons on the fire because we can't ever assume that one's going to keep going.
"If being financially well off is important to you then there's less opportunity for that here, I'd suggest."
Dubbo mayor Mathew Dickerson is the chairman of Evocities, a marketing campaign launched in 2010 to encourage city folk to move to the NSW regional cities of Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Dubbo, Orange, Tamworth and Wagga Wagga.
The median house price across the seven cities is $366,000, according to Dickerson. That buys a three-bedroom brick house on 800 square metres – a snip compared with median prices of $718,000 in Melbourne and north of a million in Sydney.
Most Evocities relocators are in their "early family" stage, and typically they'll find a job in the region before upping sticks. The unemployment rate across the Evocities sits at around 3.9 per cent and Dickerson believes comprehensive rollout of the NBN – it's currently available in Armidale and Tamworth – will make relocation even more attractive to young families: "It will make it an easier sell. It's another piece of the puzzle."
Lower priced living may be a major draw but look before you leap, because the largest cost associated with regional relocation is change of mind, financial adviser James Gerrard warns.
If you own a capital city property, keep it and rent in your new location, he advises.
It's a safer approach than selling up, only to find yourself priced out of the capital a couple of years down the track, if the bucolic charm wears thin and city prices have risen faster than those in the country.
"It can be a shock to the system when you move," Gerrard says. "[People think] country, fresh air, save lots of money but once you're there that lifestyle may not agree with everybody. People who've never lived in the country before need to be very careful when planning such a big move."
Accommodating children in their university years if there are no study options close by can be an added cost of regional living and after they've graduated you'll be shelling out to visit them, Melbourne financial adviser Steve Enticott points out.
"Move to a country town – your kids' career options are going to be in the city, so you will lose them," he says.
If you've decided smaller town life is for you, shift somewhere that's an easy journey back to the capital and organise things so you don't have to make it too often, Enticott adds.
"If you're on a train line it's not so bad – an hour and a half, three hours … you catch up with your emails, have a nap, read the paper, do all those sorts of things … but if you've got to get in your car and drive for three hours, that's a nightmare," he says.
"I tell people to avoid it if they can. If you're working, you should be working where you move, not trying to commute to a big city. That's the whole idea, you move to the country, your income's less and your costs are less, especially from a housing point of view."
Job options are less plentiful and salaries often lower outside major cities so finding a regional role you're happy with can necessitate reinventing yourself, according to Albury real estate agent David O'Connell, 40. He traded inner-city lifestyle and a career as a recruitment consultant in Melbourne for his current gig five years ago.
"There aren't the opportunities for the salaries in a regional area that you can get in a metropolitan area or capital city, but it does afford you a really good lifestyle," O'Connell says.
Lower outgoings enabled his wife Jill to spend the past five years caring full-time for their daughters Lilah, 6, and Eden, 4. She recently returned to work part-time, as an events co-ordinator at a local restaurant.
The family bought a house in central Albury for $300,000 shortly before the move and have found their other costs on par with those in Melbourne.
"We haven't sacrificed anything," David says. "If anything, we probably live better than we do in the city."
They make the three-hour journey to Melbourne regularly for a city hit – "there might be a restaurant that we want to try or we'll take the kids to the zoo" – but are planning to stay put.
"I wouldn't move back to a city now at all," O'Connell says.
"It's got too much to offer regionally. We've got a great group of friends, we love our food and wine, we're surrounded by vineyards, we like outdoor activities … We couldn't be happier as a couple and as a family."