But rather than settle for a cramped inner-city apartment on their budget they are preparing to build a four-bedroom home at the Armstrong housing estate at Mount Duneed, 10 kilometres south of Geelong.
“I needed that experience of moving to Melbourne and being independent but I realised I wanted to be back in Geelong and that it would suit us better,” she says.
Victoria’s regional cities are booming but none more so than Geelong – one of Australia’s fastest-growing regions.
In recent years, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo have set about reversing the flight to Melbourne with local university campuses, better train connections and new hospitals.
Geelong’s population has already reached almost 260,000, having added about 35,000 new residents in the five years to June 2019. There is little sign of the population increase slowing down.
Regional planners are now wondering whether the coronavirus pandemic will hasten that trend as Melburnians realise they can have a cheaper lifestyle in regional Victoria while working from home.
Pullen, 24, has watched Geelong become increasingly cosmopolitan with cafes, bars and restaurants sprouting in the laneways.
“We’ve also got a lot more hospitals and medical services, shopping centres and community areas.”
Despite the growth, she insists Greater Geelong has retained its small-town community spirit. For Pullen, putting down roots in the housing estate just a short drive from her parents was an obvious choice.
This is a familiar story for Geelong mayor Stephanie Asher, who was elected to the council in 2017. She says the region is retaining young people, many of whom stay to study at Deakin University’s two Geelong campuses or return from Melbourne to have children.
“A lot of the students still like to be able to surf or do the things they enjoy doing. If they can go to uni locally and it’s a creditable university they’re not necessarily all fleeing the region to be educated elsewhere,” she said.
Cr Asher says the city has shaken off the closure of the Ford automotive factory and is attracting many corporate workers, through home-grown clothing brand Cotton On, the Transport Accident Commission and National Insurance Disability Agency all setting up major offices in Geelong.
If the current rate of growth is maintained in Greater Geelong, which takes in Ocean Grove and Barwon Heads on the Bellarine Peninsula, the population is estimated to reach 396,000 within 15 years.
“From the Bellarine point of view we realised two decades ago that it’s all possible. The sea change really is a commutable option if you happen to work in Melbourne or even Geelong,” Cr Asher says.
Rapidly growing housing estates and densification in existing residential areas are set to absorb much of the growth.
The Armstrong Creek suburban development towards Torquay is set to explode from 17,000 residents now to 60,000 once complete.
Geelong council also wants to increase the permanent population of its CBD from about 1600 residents to 10,000 by 2028, many of whom will live in apartments.
Real Estate Institute of Victoria president Leah Calnan says that over the past six weeks agents have reported strong interest from Melburnians in regional properties.
“Agents are always mentioning there’s not enough stock,” she says.
The median house price in Melbourne is about $892,000, according to the institute’s figures. In Greater Geelong the median is $580,000, and in the City of Ballarat it’s $411,000. In Greater Bendigo it’s $390,000.
Regional Australia Institute chief executive Kim Houghton lauds Victoria’s three big regional cities as “standouts” in Australia.
But he cites labour shortages in the construction, automotive, health and education sectors as major challenges facing regional Australia.
“They’re the ones employers find hardest to fill,” he says.
Yet Dr Houghton believes the pandemic has prompted a shift in corporate culture that will allow some workers to do their jobs remotely and travel far less often into capital cities.
“You can love where you live rather than love where you work.”
Ratepayers Geelong president Peter Mitchell moved to the city from Carrum in the mid-1990s to work at the CSIRO.
But since 1999 he has been commuting to Melbourne where he took on a job in IT. Dr Mitchell has been unable to find a job in Geelong that will advance his career sufficiently and says some employers advertise positions paying up to 20 per cent less than the equivalent job in Melbourne.
“Over the past 20 years the positions in Geelong have become more and more available,” he says. “They’re not quite up to Melbourne standards yet.”
The increasing population has also brought growing pains, including frustrations with packed trains, despite more services running, and parking shortages.
Dr Mitchell says the council must carefully plan for the massive growth to protect Geelong’s character.
“I have noticed the number of medium-density buildings going up in the area. I don’t like that.”
In Ballarat the population is forecast to expand from just over 100,000 now to about 190,000 within 20 years.
Ballarat mayor Ben Taylor says the council is preparing for the release of more land for development to accommodate about 30,000 homes over two large sites.
“We’re planning now,” he says. “We’re getting to a point where our growth zones are getting tighter.”
Cr Taylor says the GovHub project that will employ 1000 Victorian government workers will be a major employer in Ballarat and may encourage people to make the move from Melbourne.
But Ballarat’s bulging suburbs have also prompted the council to look inwards, and it is trying to expand its CBD population from about 300 people at present to 3000.
The council is encouraging inner-city developments, including the Nightingale Ballarat apartment project due for completion next year.
The Brunswick-style complex will have a rooftop garden and one, two and three-bedroom apartments – a current rarity in Ballarat’s CBD.
In Bendigo the council is spruiking its growing creative arts industry, galleries, bars and restaurants to lure visitors and prospective residents.
Last year it was admitted to the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in recognition of its arts and gastronomy scenes.
There are now three planning applications for swanky hotels in Bendigo’s CBD.
Bendigo mayor Margaret O’Rourke concedes there are problems, including pockets of poverty where up to 20 per cent of residents have poor access to healthy food.
But she says the council is working on a food security strategy, including food share schemes and farmers markets.
“There’s a real optimism here in Bendigo. It’s always been here but I think we’re seeing it more now.”
The council estimates it receives about 3 million visitors a year, lured by exhibitions at the Bendigo Art Gallery and other events. Cr O’Rourke says some of those visitors decide they’d like to stay longer.
“People are making decisions based on coming for a weekend here and there and actually getting a sense and feel for the place,” she says.
Back in Geelong, Amy Pullen finds fewer reasons to go to Melbourne these days, apart from studying for her interior design course.
In Geelong she can stay involved in local theatre productions. World-class beaches are just a short drive away.
“People come down from Melbourne to go to Torquay but here it’s right on our doorstep.”
Why would she want to build a house and start a family anywhere else?
Benjamin is a state political reporter