Living on top of the world

TrioIn the late 1990s, a Brisbane developer was briefing me on the future for the city’s yet-to-happen apartment boom. The empty nesters from Clayfield and Ashgrove (old suburbs, big houses and yards), would be the first to opt for the high rise apartment with views of the Story Bridge, he said. But not all of them would stay.

Living in an apartment is not for everyone – there are the benefits of lifestyle, location, security, city views and, for the busy professional, compact living with minimal housework. The body corporate takes care of all the maintenance issues and the utilities. All you have to do is pay and obey the rules. But downsizing comes at a price.
My developer contact was explaining how when the empty nesters sell their large Clayfield or Ascot family homes and move to a three-bedroom apartment with plasterboard walls, the reality starts to set in. What will we do with our antique mahogany dresser, the Yamaha baby grand, the eight-piece walnut dining table and matching chairs? We can get gallery wall hangings for some of the paintings and family portraits, but it’s not the same, somehow. And now that we’re in this apartment, which cost a pretty penny, let me tell you, what will we do with the garden tools and the ride-on mower, given we have been allocated one car space with about 5cm to spare on either side?

This is where the self-storage business comes into its own. Australians move house every seven years on average and typically the person on the move will be going interstate for a job on a two or three-year contract and renting an apartment when they get there. So they put most of their “stuff” in storage and pay at least $250 a month for the privilege.
So after a year or of living above the city and tiring of the traffic noise and nightclub doof beats floating up to the balcony, our typical empty nesters will sell and move to a ground-floor townhouse which is in the suburbs and has bigger built-ins, a small yard and a two-car garage.
The next wave of apartment buyers would be ambitious urban professionals, our developer continued; 32, childless and match-fit to work 16-hour days as the job demands it. They finish work about 8pm, walk next door to the Japanese restaurant, then take the lift to their apartment, where they collapse into bed until the smart phone alarm demands at 5.00am that they go downstairs to the lap pool and the gym. They are in the office by 6am and the whole circus starts again.

Queensland’s capital city was slow to get started building high rise apartments. First came David Devine’s medium-rise, affordable units in the heart of the city’s nightclub precinct, Fortitude Valley. From the year 2000 onwards, Brisbane City Council allowed more development amongst the city’s office towers. Now the tallest buildings in the CBD are either residential towers or a mixture of residential, office and retail.
In Sydney, where we spent couple of nights this week in a friend’s apartment, low to medium-density apartment blocks are proliferating in the inner western suburbs. Sydney town planners are bowing to the pressures of population growth, decreeing that medium density living is the best use of land along major traffic routes like Parramatta Road.
We took advantage of the inner city location to stroll from our friend’s apartment through Annandale parkland to the harbour, joining city workers and their dogs taking their daily exercise in the daylight saving hour. In this area, Sydney’s former trotting arena, Harold Park, is fast becoming unrecognisable, as listed developer Mirvac progresses its series of low to medium-density apartment blocks and terraced homes. The first stage of these, Eden, was launched in 2012 and sold out in hours, at an average price of $1.7 million. The Harold Park master plan is for 1,250 dwellings – one, two and three-bedroom apartments and the aforementioned terraced houses – 21st century versions of the old walk-up terrace house, some running to three levels.
The Trio apartment project, on the site of the old Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, has been developed since 2007 into 11 medium density apartment buildings, each with two or more levels of secure basement parking. Trio sits within a landscaped environment of walking and cycle paths with restaurants and cafes just a few minutes’ walk away.

You’ll need $810k to buy into this dream

If that all sound attractive, good luck with the mortgage. The median apartment price within inner city Sydney is $810k, with prices rising 4.4% last year. Real estate folklore has it the only way to make some money along the way is to buy off the plan (before the building starts), sell at a profit and do it all over again.
By far the biggest participants in this market are Asian investors who often buy more than one apartment in the same building. Typically, their young adult children will live in these spaces while studying law, dentistry, architecture, engineering or medicine at one of our fee-paying universities. Their shrewd parents don’t mind making this kind of investment, as they will probably make a profit along the way or just hold for the next generation.
Now that we’ve been living in a country town for more than a decade, Sydney’s fast-paced, noisy, impatient atmosphere can be a little wearing. There’s a huge buzz about the city; you can eat out anywhere at any time of the day or night. (It is said there is a café somewhere in inner Sydney that closes only one hour per day (4am to 5am) for cleaning). But as its population of 4.57 million continues to grow (78% of the NSW growth rate in 2013-2014 was in the Greater Sydney area), it is clear to see why the city planners want real estate to go up and not further out.
As you might have read, the median house price in Sydney is now $1 million, which explains a bit about the demand for inner city apartments. The alternative is to buy a long way out and commute to work. Thousands of people already commute from places as far north as Wyong (93 kms) south from Kiama or Jervis Bay (100kms) or west from Katoomba (101kms).

Living in smaller spaces

While apartment dwellers enjoy proximity to the city heart, they have to get used to living in a compact space. Apartments are getting smaller as designers learn how to make more with less. One bedroom studios are rarely more than 50sqm, two-bedroom apartments around 85sqm and three bedroom units range from 100sqm to 125sqm. Compare that with your two-level McMansion in suburbia (300sqm is common). But apartment-dwellers can choose to do without a car, find time for a fitness schedule, stroll to theatres, cinemas or restaurants and become expert at using the synchronised public transport system. And they don’t have to mow lawns.
All this will come back to us, I’m sure, when driving down the 97m driveway to our two-level brick home on half an acre after being away for two weeks. The hedge needed trimming when we left. Hope we can tidy it all up before the house concert on the 29th!

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