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What I learned from escaping the city


Dreaming of a tree or sea change? Property journalist Kirsten Craze shares four insights she's gained since moving from Sydney to the country.

Anyone who dreads their daily commute has toyed with the idea of escaping the city. Workers growing weary of life under fluorescent lights dream of breaking out of the office mould to become a digital nomad in Bali or throwing in the career towel to become a beach bum in Byron Bay.

And if it’s not the “9-to-5 grind” pushing people to escape to the country, then it’s because today’s sky-high metro property prices are breaking the bank and squashing the great Australian dream.

The idea of a sea or tree change is nothing new – retirees have cashed in on their big city property values for years to buy in the bush or by the beach. Without the need to work full time, Baby Boomers and the generation before them have been hitting the road in campervans, or settling down in sleepy towns. But that hasn’t always been an option for career-focused youngsters.

For generations it seemed city slickers seeking a way out of the rat race (and the crazy real estate prices that come with it) only had two choices:

  1. Move to a small town where they’d find a huge pay cut and career suicide, or
  2. Wait until retirement.

But 2020 is a different (and very digital) landscape.

Six months ago I said goodbye to the city and escaped to the country in search of a better work-life balance and a lower cost of living – but I took my career with me. Here’s what I learned.

Grey nomads are making way for digital nomads

While grey nomads (Baby Boomers with plenty of superannuation and a Winnebago to their name) continue to pursue their sea and tree change dreams, an increasing number of working age people are snubbing Sydney and Melbourne in pursuit of a better work-life balance with no commute, no fixed office hours (or even an office address) and still plenty of career progression.

Not to mention a cheaper way of life with house prices – and rents – sometimes half that of the city.

Digital nomads (location-independent workers who use technology to get the job done) can now be found anywhere they can find a good Internet connection – while earning just what their city counterparts are.

When I recently interviewed Lisa Messenger, founder and publisher of Collective Hub and author of Work From Wherever, she told me a digital nomad only requires a very small bag of tricks.

“All you need is a laptop and good ideas.”

The consensus is that people who equate career satisfaction with big city success stories (and big city property prices) are living in the past.

“Today, in terms of real estate options, it’s probably one of the most exciting times ever because now the economy is literally borderless. You can work from anywhere and that means you can live anywhere – and I love that.”

Small towns aren’t what they used to be

A couple of decades ago, when I said adieu to the same small town I just moved back to, there were only four television channels, three courses at the local university’s satellite office (i.e. no actual campus), one over-priced airline option and any lengthy out-of-town phone call would break the bank. But with today’s technology, cheaper travel and social media, small town life is only as small as you want it to be.

I can chat to family members or work associates across the globe for free and face-to-face whenever I want, study anything online and fly to Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane within a couple of hours. Even the added cost of an occasional flight for business is cheaper than paying for Sydney property all year long.

There are, of course, things you do have to say goodbye to when quitting the city, like great live gigs any day of the week, or big cultural events and exhibitions. However, for me, motherhood meant a mid-week concert or a Sunday stroll through a gallery was off the cards for the meantime anyway.

Sidenote: regional Australia can still surprise you – like getting a front row spot on the sand for the New Year’s Eve fireworks or even having Elton John choose to play in your neighbourhood.

You don’t have to limit your career aspirations

Before leaving Sydney, people would ask me with equal amounts of fascination and concern: “But, what are you guys actually going to do for work?”

There is a myth among city slickers that regional Australia is a career wasteland. The assumption is that a fulfilling career with a handsome salary and a life in the country are mutually exclusive and never the twain shall meet. And it’s just not true.

Okay, there’s no denying that unemployment rates tend to be higher in regional towns than in capital cities. However, those numbers only show part of the picture in a landscape where freelancing, contract work and side hustles are becoming more mainstream. Not every job opportunity is posted online or will land in your inbox via a alert. The most fascinating people I’ve met in my new home town have carved their own career path.

There’s the husband and wife team who alternate their work schedules (so someone is always home with their three kids) to fly around the world to produce award-winning television shows, a corporate high flyer who ditched the office to start her own successful mobile music school as well as a host of people who work as online virtual assistants, bookkeepers, remote web developers, English teachers via FaceTime or even hold hula hoop lessons for toddlers and senior citizens.

Don’t jump into the “cheap” property market

Coming from Australia’s priciest place to live can make everywhere else seem like a bargain. Even after a slide in values, Sydney’s median dwelling (that’s house and units) price is still around $840,000 (and rising again) and in Melbourne it’s $667,000 – so most regional real estate can seem crazy cheap.

But what I’ve learned from a decade and a half of writing about bricks and mortar is that regional and metropolitan property markets just don’t behave the same way.

Sea and tree change regret is a real thing and it is stinging Aussies across the country.

After selling up in the city for a cool $1 million, it might seem like a no brainer to drop half that on a home and keep the rest for a rainy (or sunny) day. However, what many buyers neglect to do is put local property prices into perspective.

In Sydney, you’d be hard pressed to find a house for half a million. But that kind of change can be excessive in smaller towns. To secure their dream home, some buyers might be willing to pay top dollar – but to see significant capital growth, regional real estate often needs to be held far longer than city property. It can linger on the shelf for much longer (sometimes more than a year compared to a month or two in the cities), which all adds up to a financial disaster if the property needs to be offloaded after just a few years due to work commitments or family matters. So getting the lay of the land before buying can really make a difference.

Kirsten Craze is a freelance writer who has been digging deep into the world of property for more than 15 years. She has written about bricks and mortar (and all that comes with it) for some of Australia's most well-read publications from long form articles in the traditional print media to bite-sized portions for property apps. She's peeked behind the medicine cabinets in Australia's priciest homes, became a real estate agent in four days for a story and knows all about this year's Pantone Colour of the Year.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article (which may be subject to change without notice) are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Finder and its employees. The information contained in this article is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, investment advice, trading advice or any other advice or recommendation of any sort. Neither the author nor Finder have taken into account your personal circumstances. You should seek professional advice before making any further decisions based on this information.

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