quarter-acre

Quarter Acre Dreaming

New Zealand’s balanced and internationally-respected news media, often runs a popular news cycle which reads a little something like this:

“First home buyers Sharon & Barry, 26 & 27 years old, of Auckland (pictured), have had enough. ‘This is the tenth auction we’ve attended this week and, frankly, we’re starting to think we’d be better off moving to the Gold Coast.”

Sharon & Barry paint a picture of the typical New Zealand family trying to get on the property ladder. They have a 2 year old son and a 6 month old daughter.  Barry is a self-employed electrical fitter, Sharon a part time book keeper. Their combined income, while average for New Zealand, on OECD rankings sits somewhere between a janitor from Copenhagen and a nursing student from Mexico City.

“We’ve saved for 5 years for a deposit, explains Barry, and we’ve secured a loan from our bank for $450K. All we want is to buy our own four bedroom, quarter acre slice of the Kiwi dream. In Herne Bay. Or maybe Westmere. But no further out than Grey Lynn, I don’t trust the schools out there. Too many immigrants.”

“Sharon & Barry have lost every auction they’ve been to. “They’re always won by fat-cat property investors or people who can actually afford the houses. How is an average Kiwi family like us supposed to get a foot on the property ladder? Its just not fair. And I want to know what the government is going to do about it.”

The story inevitably concludes with a weak counterpoint – a photo of a bearded hermit in the kitchen of his run-down, but large, old castle. Despite being surrounded by chicken bones, discarded tissue paper, and absolutely no friends or family, he still enjoys a good old laugh at those silly Jaffas by declaring, smugly, “Look what $150 grand buys you in Invercargill!”

History

A quarter of an acre is 1000 square metres, or for those of you who still read newspapers, 1 billion-infinity square feet. F**king massive, in other words.

The dream of owning a family home on a quarter acre property is hard-wired into the Kiwi psyche, dating back to the early days of colonial immigration, when large tracts of land were stolen legally purchased from local Maori by the British government, subdivided into quarter-acre plots, and offered for tuppence and a boat fare to rugged young Englishmen prepared to sail half way round the world to shear sheep, spear whales, and suppress their emotions for a living.

But like so much Kiwi mythology there is a gap between perceived history, and modern reality. In the 1800s only 3% of the world’s populations lived in cities. By 2050 more than 70% will live in cities. Modern economies are driven by thriving metropolitan centres with medium & high density housing and good public transport. Yet the overwhelming majority of kiwis still believe it is their birth right to own, as their first home, a 7 bedroom, 400 square metre mini-Versailles on the city fringe, with 3 car internal garaging and a tennis court / touch-rugby field. Homes on such a grand scale are clearly at odds with rational town planning. But more importantly, you pretty much need a ride on vacuum cleaner just to keep on top of all that carpet.

Desperately seeking space from each other, many Kiwis choose to live in sprawling suburbia ever further from city centres and their place of work. This variation of “living the dream” is referred to as “getting away from it all” (“it” being the “rat race” that is central Auckland – a city so empty most weeknights that The Quiet Earth was filmed without blocking off a single street) and inevitably leads, in those who chose to live it, to excessive whinging about the price of petrol, and traffic congestion on motorways on which nobody forced them to drive.

As a result, since the 1960s the size of the average Kiwi house has more than doubled, and house prices as a ratio of average salaries increased around 500%, such that, today, New Zealand’s primary productive export is no longer dairy, wool or Crowded House albums, but money. As in “everyone’s hard earned money” – bleeding out of the country in interest payments to offshore banks, servicing mortgages nobody can afford.

Fortunately most New Zealanders are protected from the worry normally associated with a slow financial apocalypse by their poor grasp of financial literacy, and an almost lemming-like belief that “She’ll be right.”

For the rest, there are plenty of affordable, inner-city apartments and townhouses that make great first home buys, without leveraging up to the eyeballs. These properties tend to be popular with recent immigrants, Kiwis returning from overseas, or anyone else from the 95% of the rest of the world quite happy to live in 50 to 100 sqm, close to cafes, bars, shops… and other people. Otherwise known as ‘community’.

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