The good, the bad and the ugly sides of owning acreage
If you’re thinking of making a tree change and buying a big property in the country, consider the pros and cons of acreage living before you make the move.
If you’re tired of the fast pace and stress of life in a big city or town, the idea of packing up and moving to somewhere with plenty of wide open spaces is very appealing. Thousands of Aussies make a tree change each year, leaving city living behind for life on an acreage.
But before you pack up your old life and head for the hills, consider all the pros and cons of owning acreage to decide whether life on a property is right for you.
What is an acreage?
It can be hard to get a concept of just how big some country properties are until you see them in person. To put things in perspective, 1 acre is equal to 4,047 square metres (or 43,650 square feet or 0.4047 hectares if you prefer other measurements).
So even a five-acre property is more than 20,000 square metres in size. Compare that to the average block size in Australia of around 200–350 square metres, and you begin to get an idea of how big an acreage actually is.
As a result, you will usually find properties of this size in rural areas of Australia, or on the very outskirts of major cities.
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Top tips on buying an acreage
If you’re considering buying an acreage, keep these top tips in mind:
- Check the zoning. Check with the local council to see how the property is zoned. For example, a property zoned for conservation may have restrictions about clearing land and building, while there are also special requirements for properties in flood and bushfire zones.
- Water supply. Check to see whether the property is on town water or whether you will need to source your own water supply. If you need to source it yourself, where does the water come from and how? Do you have the necessary skills and knowledge to maintain the supply?
- Other utilities. As well as water, check to see whether the property has a sewage connection. Also try to find out how much you will have to pay for electricity to be connected, and investigate the quality of mobile and Internet coverage in the area.
- Use of space. Before you buy, consider how you will use the space. If you’re not keeping animals that will help keep the grass short, mowing will become a very time-consuming chore on some properties. However, some blocks, such as heavily wooded or sloping and rocky properties, will not require too much mowing.
- Leave emotion out of it. It’s easy to get sucked in by the romance and natural beauty of a large country property, but don’t let your heart rule your head. Take the time to consider all the pros and cons of buying acreage, especially the maintenance required, before you make a decision.
Pros of owning acreage
There are many reasons why people are tempted to give up life in a big city or town and move to a large country property, including:
- Space. Acreage gives you plenty of room to move, and also means you’re not living on top of your neighbours.
- Relaxed lifestyle. The key words to remember here are peace and quiet.
- Opportunities for activity. From playing with animals to riding dirt bikes, fishing and just about anything else you can imagine, living on a big block of land gives you plenty of options for outdoor activity.
- Fresh air. If you’re sick of the smell of car exhaust and the pollution of the city, moving to the clean, fresh air of the country could work wonders.
- Get in touch with nature. Whether you want a big, rambling garden or the natural surrounds of the Aussie bush, moving to an acreage lets you leave the urban jungle behind and indulge your passion for nature.
- Animal attraction. Want to own dogs, cats, horses, chickens and also get up close with Aussie native animals? An acreage gives you the space you need to do just that.
- Prices are lower. The further away you are from a city or major town, the more reasonable you can expect property prices to be. This means you get a lot more bang for your buck when you buy acreage.
Cons of owning acreage
However, there are some downsides to buying an acreage, so make sure you’re aware of them before you sign anything.
- Maintenance. The bigger the property, the more work you’ll have to do to keep it running. You need to be prepared to tackle the hard work if you want to make a go of living on acreage.
- Cost. The ongoing maintenance of a property also comes at a cost. From mowers and brush cutters to power tools, fencing, pool maintenance (if applicable) and pest control, you will need to budget for several additional expenses.
- Distance from amenities. In some parts of Australia, where you live can have an adverse effect on your ability to access phone and internet coverage, while public transport cover is minimal or non-existent.
- Distance from work. Moving to an acreage could also lead to a long commute for many people. This problem can be avoided if you work from home or find employment closer to your new residence.
- Bushfire threat. In some parts of Australia, the threat of bushfire is very real. You may need to be prepared to deal with the risks posed by natural disasters if you live in the bush.
- Nasty wildlife. Not all Australian wildlife is cute and cuddly – you’ll need to be prepared to deal with snakes.
Case study #1: When a tree change goes right
Up until three years ago, 31-year-old Jess Simpson had lived in and around Sydney her entire life. She grew up in Camden on the city’s south-western outskirts before spending time living in Balmain, Mosman, Lane Cove and Longueville.
Along with her husband Andrew, Jess had no plans of leaving the NSW capital. “We had spent almost a year with an architect designing our dream place. We were going to knock down and rebuild our home in Longueville and stay there forever,” she explains.
But just one week into the internal demolition, Andrew saw their new place in Cobbitty, about five minutes from where Jess grew up in Camden. “I didn’t know that Andrew had even been looking online at properties. We fell in love with the Cobbitty home, negotiated a long settlement and spent the next year renovating our Longueville house and finally selling it before making our tree change,” Simpson says.
Cobbitty. Source: Google Maps.
It’s now been three years since Jess and Andrew swapped their Sydney Harbour views for the 20-acre property, and they don’t regret a thing. “Camden is a beautiful area with great community spirit, a historic country town that is still not too far from the city. It is a lovely area to raise a family and there is everything you need here,” Simpson explains.
“We have 20 beautiful acres of space, whereas where we lived in Mosman while renovating it was a townhouse with no grass. It has been a big change – lots of mowing for Andrew!
“I also love that we know more people here. It is a more friendly place than the city can sometimes be. I found in the city people tend to keep more to themselves and who they already know.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t downsides to their new lifestyle. “The biggest thing we miss is the convenience and proximity to events in the city,” Simpson says. “We had beautiful views of the Harbour Bridge from our old house; now we have beautiful bushland views.”
However, the main downsides to living on 20 acres are the maintenance and mowing. “Once summer hits the grass just goes wild. We also have to deal with heaps of wildlife,” Simpson says. “Some are nice like kangaroos, deer and kookaburras, others not so nice like snakes.
“My husband has his own IT & AV business, and misses the lightning-fast Internet of the city. Luckily, though, his office is in the next suburb which has NBN.”
All things considered, the big move has been a huge success for Jess and Andrew. They are lucky in that they are both self-employed and can work from home, and Jess admits that this flexibility allowed them to have an easy tree change.
“If you still had to commute a fair distance to work that would be a big consideration, I would suggest. You don’t want to spend your life travelling to and from work,” she says.
Case study #2: When a tree change goes wrong
Sometimes tree changes don’t quite go according to plan, as Victoria Judge, founder and owner of digital marketing business Expert Agency, found out when she purchased a 45-acre farm at Bellingen, NSW in November 2014.
Bellingen, NSW. Source: Google Maps.
“It was love at first visit,” says 41-year-old Judge, who left her life on the Central Coast of NSW to make the move north. “I made the classic mistake of buying completely on emotion. I had never been to the area before viewing and purchasing the property.”
Buying a farm had been a lifetime dream for Judge, so what went wrong? “Perhaps a simple case of caveat emptor, with a bit of bad luck on top,” Judge says.
The challenges she faced were many and they started presenting themselves immediately. Some issues were practical in nature:
- There was no water supply to the house. “All water was pumped from a creek, a 10-minute walk from the house, run by an ancient electric pump that broke at least once a week. No electricity meant no water and there were plenty of power cuts,” Judge says.
- There was no rubbish collection. All rubbish had to be sorted and disposed of at appointed waste transfer stations.
- There was almost no phone or Internet coverage. “I don't recall a single phone conversation that didn't get cut off at least once, and to keep my business going from home I was spending over $600 a month in excess data charges as only Wi-Fi is available there, with a cap of 25MB,” Judge explains.
- The property was accessed via an unsealed road that degenerated into almost impassable potholes.
- Despite all these shortcomings, Judge was still paying full rates of around $2,500 a year.
Other challenges were environmental:
- “Ticks, leeches, snakes and other insects plagued my animals (cats, dogs, horses), with one dog costing $2,000 in anti-venom after a red-bellied black snake bite,” Judge says.
- Floods cut off the town and the road Judge lived on at least once a year.
- “I was not prepared for how different the climate would be,” Judge admits. “Summers were stifling and winters freezing.”
- The climate also meant extreme growth in terms of foliage, and Judge faced a constant battle to keep on top of everything.
However, the worst challenges were caused by other people. “A neighbouring farmer wanted to use my land and became gradually more aggressive in his attempts to take over, culminating in him sneaking onto the property one night to take down my fences and drill holes in my only water supply. I had to make a police report and hire a solicitor to resolve the situation,” Judge says.
Sadly, Judge’s dream of life on a farm turned pear-shaped pretty quickly and she had sold up and moved back to the NSW Central Coast by June 2016. “I was extremely lucky to sell within three months. The property had been on the market 18 months when I purchased and another house on the same road is still for sale after more than five years. It's been four months since I moved and I am still getting over the stress,” she says.
“I don't regret giving it a red-hot go, but I very much regret not doing sufficient due diligence. I would never have believed that somewhere so close to a major urban centre (Coffs Harbour) would be so lacking in basic infrastructure, or that somewhere so beautiful would hide so many unpleasant surprises. The whole exercise was very expensive.”
Judge’s story shows just how important it is to understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into before uprooting your whole life in search of your own tree change.
Having said that, if you research a property thoroughly beforehand and if you’re prepared to handle everything that comes with rural living – both good and bad – moving to an acreage could be perfect for you and your family. Just make sure you’re aware of all the pros and cons before you buy.
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