The family is renting in Ocean Shores and looking to buy, part of a trend that pushed up Byron Bay’s property prices by 37 per cent in 2020, as reported by the Domain House Price Report.
Amanda says she and Julian have not had time to feel lonely because they have had non-stop visitors since their move. They are still settling in, but they’re loving it so far.
“We’re very much ocean and outdoors people, and obviously we get a lot of wildlife, nature, outdoor activities and beach where we are, so that was a big drawcard,” Amanda says. “We all have limited time, so it’s about how we can get the most out of each day.”
Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics released last week show a net 7782 people left the Greater Sydney region in the September quarter, three in five of them moving to regional NSW. That’s on top of a net 14,000 in the first six months of the year.
Social researcher and demographer Mark McCrindle says Sydney was losing people to other states and the regions even before the pandemic.
“The only reason Sydney’s been growing by 100,000 people per year over the best part of a decade is because of overseas migration,” McCrindle says. “Now with the borders closed, it’s really highlighting Sydney’s challenge and that is that the locals are voting with their feet and moving elsewhere.”
McCrindle says Sydneysiders were leaving because of unaffordable housing and congestion but hindered by the lack of job prospects outside the city. The pandemic changed the employment side of the equation for many people and McCrindle believes that shift is here to stay.
The pandemic also prompted a move for Melanie Toner, 37, and her husband, Lachlan Hill, who were renting in Glebe and had bought a holiday house on acreage just outside Tumut north-west of the Snowy Mountains.
Before the pandemic they were heading to Tumut every weekend, a four-hour drive away. When COVID-19 hit, they decided to give up the lease in the city and move to the country full time.
Toner’s husband, an engineer, got work with the Snowy Mountains hydroelectricity project, while Toner was able to do her job in online compliance from home.
Toner says she is adjusting to country life but admits she misses Sydney more than her husband, especially not having the social interaction at work and with local markets and yoga classes paused for most of last year because of coronavirus.
“It was a bit more of a struggle for me but we do like it here,” she says. “The neighbours are lovely and friendly; they’re constantly dropping off eggs and vegetables and things. It’s hard to get a feel of what it’s really like to live here because of COVID – I haven’t really got out into the community that much yet and I haven’t met anyone my own age. I imagined it will be lonely but so far it hasn’t been so bad.”
McCrindle says interstate moves to places like the Sunshine Coast in Queensland have always been popular but intrastate moves within NSW are a rising trend.
“What last year showed was that we are in a federation of states and those state borders, while we didn’t give them much consideration for the last century, can actually hold substantial and material impact for people,” McCrindle says.
The influx of cityslickers can be challenging for those already living in regional towns.
Aleta Bates from the Sunshine Coast says the situation with Sydneysiders and Melburnians moving to the region and pricing out locals is “at crisis levels”.
“We have nowhere to go if we can’t get a rental,” she says. “It’s not like we can pop on down to Sydney or Melbourne and grab an empty rental that’s been left as a result of this mass exodus.”
Elizabeth, 28, from Bathurst says people are struggling in the Central West too.
“There was a rental crisis before COVID, but now it’s near impossible for locals to find a rental,” says Elizabeth, who requested her last name be withheld. “There are 15-plus applicants and those moving from Sydney are prepared to pay extra dollars on already overpriced rentals. There are so many people who are struggling at the moment.”
Elizabeth says she was still living at home because landlords would not accept someone with a casual job and she had heard of single parents living out of suitcases in hotels with their children.
For many people, hybrid working between home and the office has made a move within easy reach of Sydney more appealing, making it more viable to live in the Blue Mountains, the Central Coast, Illawarra or Southern Highlands.
“In a sense, these people are not divorcing Sydney, they’re just realigning the relationship,” McCrindle says. “They’re not going to totally cut all ties, they’re looking to set up their life within a connection point of Sydney.”
Digital strategist Joanne Jacobs, 49, moved from Lavender Bay to Leura in September and plans to commute to Sydney about once a fortnight to visit clients.
When the pandemic hit, she and her business partner spent three months working from home, and ultimately decided they no longer wanted to keep their office in Surry Hills.
Jacobs then acted on her long-held desire to move to the Blue Mountains for the cooler climate and natural beauty.
“It’s been the best decision, I absolutely love it,” she says. “I’ve cut my cost of living by about a third, it’s an absolutely gorgeous place to be and it’s only two hours on the train so it’s actually commutable if I need to come into Sydney for a meeting.”
McCrindle says research from the National Sea Change Taskforce more than 10 years ago suggests one in five people who move from the city to the regions return within five years.
Nicola Heath and her husband moved from Stanmore in the inner west to Adamstown in Newcastle in 2016 with two young children, and now have a third child.
Heath made the decision to work as a freelance writer to enable the move, while her husband works at the hospital.
She says there are an increasing number of Sydneysiders moving to Newcastle for the affordability and lifestyle benefits. At her children’s primary school, the school has grown from two kindergarten classes when her eldest daughter started two years ago to three-and-a-half this year.
Some things have worked out as expected and some haven’t – she loves the lifestyle and being close to the beach but is yet to fulfil her dream of home ownership because of rising prices in Newcastle.
“There’s loads I miss about Sydney but having young children often meant that I couldn’t enjoy Sydney in a way that I could before kids,” Heath says. “I miss public transport, but not the traffic, and I miss the diversity.”
Corinne Podger, in her 50s, moved to Mittagong for family reasons in 2018. Until last year her work as a media trainer took her all over the world, but since COVID-19 she has only left the Southern Highlands five times.
Podger does not drive and she finds that “really limiting” in a country town, the lack of street lights around her house curbs her desire to go out at night, and she finds it challenging not having access to cultural activities at the same level as when she lived in Sydney, Melbourne or London.
“It’s not to say that there isn’t a vibrant cultural scene in the Southern Highlands but it’s not the Opera House, it’s not Hamer Hall,” Podger says.
Ultimately Podger would like to move to within an hour of either Sydney or Melbourne.
Melanie Tait, 40, from Marrickville is one of those who returned. She moved to Hobart in 2014 for work and moved back in 2018.
She is glad she spent the pandemic year in Sydney, within easy access to her parents and family, rather than dealing with state border closures.
“I really loved it there but ultimately found it very lonely so I came home,” Tait says. “I made nice friends but it just wasn’t enough. I really wish it had been different as I love Hobart.
“When I got back to Sydney I felt like the lights had been switched back on.”
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.