Deirdré and Mitchell reflected in a mirror, with a large weird light fixture overhead

Looking for a new home

We knew we’d have to hit the ground running on finding a home to rent. Before we left quarantine, we had already engaged a relocation specialist (Marcelle of Sydney Rental Search – whom I warmly recommend), who gave us abundant advice and insider information on the Sydney rental market. Long story short: it isn’t easy. Over the course of 10 days we visited about 10 places, in a wide variety of styles and locations. It was exhausting work, and we were under time pressure: the new school year started Jan 29th, and we wanted Mitchell back in school ASAP. (One of our non-negotiable criteria was that the school district needed to be good, which ruled out some neighborhoods that would otherwise have been interesting.)

The Sydney rental market does not enjoy the big, centrally-managed apartment complexes that we were accustomed to in the Bay Area. Most rental properties are privately owned. Some landlords own many rental units, but in recent years there’s been a housing bubble, with many people encouraged by low mortgage rates to buy investment properties. 

Most places seem to be leased and managed by hyper-local real estate agents. The rental process starts with an inspection, which usually occurs during a 15-minute window that anyone can show up to – most of the places we saw had multiple viewers during the same time slot, all potential competitors in the hot rental market. I took a lot of photos to help us remember later what we did and didn’t like about specific places.

Brendan looking from a balcony high up, with other tall buildings and a crane in the background
Bondi Junction features high rises built on top of shopping malls and a train station

When you find a place you want, you should apply for it right away. Most agencies use one of three popular rental application sites, each of them invasive in a slightly different way. I have never before had to give so much deeply personal information (three pay stubs, proof of current employment, passport, driver’s license…) to secure a rental. Part of this is because we haven’t been in the Australian rental system (well, Brendan was, 15 years ago), so we had to supply a lot of proof that we’re reliable and desirable as renters.

Our options were limited by our size needs. Most new investment units (apartments) have only two bedrooms – which small-scale investors have been told gives them the best ROI. There’s a shortage of three-bedroom and larger places, which are now in higher demand as more people are working from home (yes, also in Australia). We will both be working from home most of the time, so we definitely need at least three bedrooms, which narrowed our search considerably. We also wanted to have that extra bedroom for overseas visitors, whenever that becomes possible.

Geographically, we wanted to be near water. After 10 months cooped up in that San Jose house without much to look at beyond our own fences and garden, one of our biggest priorities was to have a big view. Being near water also tends to moderate temperatures. Like the rest of the world, Sydney is getting hotter, and this is especially felt in the inland western suburbs, which are also more at risk from bushfires. Hotter inland temperatures are also a problem at schools, which are not air-conditioned –inland schools return from summer vacation a week later for this reason, but a week won’t always be enough to avoid the hottest days. (This year has been mild and fire-free, especially compared with last year. Apparently we have La Niña to thank for this.)

A place near Bondi Beach seemed like a nice idea, but we later learned that Bondi is unusually quiet this year due to the pandemic – we probably wouldn’t like the noise and crowds in a normal year.

Our first home inspection, right after we got out of quarantine on the morning of January 6th, was two units in an Art Deco style building built in the 1940s, with the original, wood-veneered, built-in closets still in place – you can imagine their condition in 2021! The carpets weren’t quite the same vintage but still worryingly old, as were the air conditioners. These apartments were huge (far larger than any we subsequently saw) and had a distant view of water. These features did not compensate for their age. An interesting quirk: each had a room exterior to the apartment on a back stair, originally intended as a servant’s room, now repurposed as a laundry room. I guess/hope that back in the day there must have been communal bath and toilet facilities somewhere on the premises for all the building’s servants. The final verdict on this building was that I could imagine buying and completely renovating one of these apartments, but not renting them in their current condition. 

That afternoon I went, together with Marcelle the relocation advisor, to look at another apartment, this one within a few blocks of Coogee Beach. The location was good and the apartment far more modern, but the rooms were tiny. This seemed like a great option for young roommates without many possessions who spent most of their time on the beach, but it would not work for us. 

At this point I had already seen enough on the real estate sites and in person to form a working hypothesis: apartments in older buildings were likely to be larger, but need to have been renovated before I could consider living in them. Some (many?) newer apartments are tiny. Unless you’re swimming in cash, there are tradeoffs to be made among proximity to downtown, size, view, condition, and price. I concluded that we had to prioritize one or two of these criteria, hope for three, and we’d be lucky to get four. I was awake half the night wondering anxiously if we were doomed to live like college students until we were finally ready to buy our own home. I have lived in cramped or crappy apartments a lot of my life, and have zero interest in returning to that lifestyle.

Brendan seen down a hallway, white cabinets and kitchen area in the foreground
A nicely finished newer apartment

Over the following 10 days we saw eight more places, in suburbs ranging from Manly in the north (a ferry commute to the Central Business District, aka the CBD), to Bondi beach in the east, to Cronulla in the south. We had visited a few neighborhoods during a previous trip to Sydney, and in more normal times would have made another reconnaissance trip before we moved. The pandemic meant that we had to do everything in a much bigger hurry and with far less preparation than we would have liked.

One of the suburbs we’d had our eye on since that earlier trip was Cronulla. It’s as far south as you can go and still be in greater Sydney, at the end of one of the commuter train lines, about an hour’s ride into the CBD on a very nice train (fare ~$5, depending on day/time). Cronulla has amazing beaches on the ocean. There’s a lot of waterfront in Sydney – which exists as a city because it’s one of the world’s great natural harbours – but much of it is on bays and rivers, which of course don’t have the same wave action as the ocean. Even before leaving California, I’d been looking at the Australian real estate sites for places to rent in Cronulla, and had seen a few that seemed appealing. 

It happened that an apartment I’d had my eye on for weeks came up for inspection at exactly the right time. We saw it, and fell in love with the stunning, 180-degree, uninterrupted beach and ocean views. It’s an older apartment with three bedrooms, two baths, and a big patio in the back as well as a balcony with the view out to the ocean. The living/dining room, kitchen, and master bedroom also have incredible views of the water and beaches. We’re paying not much less rent than we did in San Jose, with slightly less space (though better storage) and a far shabbier kitchen, but… that view!

It’s an easy walk to the train station for when we do want to go into the CBD, though neither of us will need to do that regularly. Mitchell’s school is also very walkable, as are shops and restaurants. Three stops/15 minutes away on the train, in the suburb called Miranda, there’s a huge mall with everything we could want (yes, we have Westfields here, too). FYI: Malls in Australia include grocery stores!

The apartment wouldn’t be available until Feb 15th, so we stayed for nearly three weeks in yet another temp accommodation, this one near our future home but unfortunately a bit tighter quarters than we had in Woolloomooloo. We will all be glad to get out of here. (In the meantime, Claire has also found a place, near ours and with a stunning view of her own.)

Cronulla

We received the signed lease on the Friday before school started, and submitted the paperwork to enroll Mitchell in school over that weekend. Tuesday the 26th was a national holiday so, not surprisingly, we didn’t hear from the school until Wednesday. All three parents accompanied Mitchell to an interview with the principal on Thursday, then Claire and I went off to a nearby mall to get school supplies and uniforms. (Uniforms are required at all schools, public and private.) School started on Friday, January 29th, and Mitchell was happy to be back in a classroom with other kids for the first time in 10 months. He’s already made multiple friends, bonding over video games (what else?).

Our freight is due into port on Feb 25th, but it’ll take at least three weeks to get it through customs and delivered home after that, possibly much longer. Good thing we weren’t relying on having that stuff anytime soon – we had planned to buy mostly new furniture, dishes, etc. anyway, though it’s annoying that we will have to buy mattresses to sleep on til the others arrive.

We have to acquire quite a few things in a hurry: not just mattresses and other basic furniture, but also a fridge and washer/dryer – these are not typically included in rentals (fortunately, unlike in Italy, sinks and toilets are included). The landlord is supplying a brand-new dishwasher and having reverse cycle air-conditioning installed in all three bedrooms (it had only recently been installed in the living room) – these units will also heat when desired. I’m not sure whether there’s a microwave, we’ll find out tomorrow! There’s a laundry and storage room which will fit at least a washer, and I hope also a dryer. I need to get in and measure that space, as well as the space for the fridge.

We’ll need to rent a car to go to Ikea and elsewhere to buy and order stuff – we haven’t bought one yet, and even when we do it won’t be big enough to transport furniture. So tomorrow will be a busy day, starting with picking up the rental car and then the keys to our new home.

Brendan in our new backyard

To answer a question that has already come up: no, I won’t have a garden. There’s a lot of room on the patio to plant things in large pots, but that’s about as ambitious as I want to get. This year I’ll be happy to spend a lot of time walking on beaches.

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