Initially, we were on our own in house hunting, and it was all new to both of us. Brendan did extensive research on interest rates, housing prices, etc. – he was taking a very cautious approach to spending such a large amount of money. Because he was tracking the numbers closely, by late last year he was well aware that the housing market was peaking and would be likely to drop 10-20% in 2022 (especially once the Reserve Bank of Australia got around to raising interest rates). We needed a house to live in ASAP, but given these market conditions we weren’t willing to be extravagant. And, as previously noted, having another half to full million to spend would not have given us many more options: there just aren’t enough houses.
In the course of his researches, Brendan found Martin North’s YouTube channel on the economy and finance (particularly Australia’s). A weekly feature on the channel is a “property rant” featuring property consultant Edwin Almeida. Edwin has been dealing with the Sydney housing market for decades, as a builder, inspector, seller’s agent, flipper, and now as a buyer’s agent and general thorn in the side of Sydney realtors. I’d heard from friends in Melbourne that a buyer’s agent could be a huge help, so we decided in December to engage Edwin. His flat fee was modest in proportion to the amount we were looking to spend, and it was comforting to have expert guidance in getting a place that would suit us at the best possible price, while avoiding nasty surprises.
Part of the service is that Edwin will inspect any property you might be serious about. From the first house we asked him to look at, he sent videos of him going through with a moisture meter to find leaks behind the walls. “Yes, you could buy this place, but you’d have to spend at least $100k immediately on redoing the bathrooms” was his verdict.
This was also the first house where we got close enough to being interested to start experiencing some of the games realtors play: “It’ll go to auction at $2.5M, but the owner’s got an offer on the table for 2.3. It can be yours right away if you offer 2.35.” As the scenario played out over weeks, it became clear that there was no other real offer. That house never did go to auction and we later heard (we kept running into the same realtors at various properties) that the owners had decided to wait on selling it.
Edwin’s extensive contacts were also useful. One house we liked was listed for auction at $3M, which we assumed meant it would sell somewhat higher and hence be out of our budget. The seller’s agent kept calling to cajole us to come to the auction: “Our guide price is $2.8M, you’ve got a chance – you should just come along and see.” By this time we’d seen enough to be surprised at the idea that this house (one of the nicest we’d inspected) would go for under $3M. Edwin called the senior agent at the firm and learned that the owners were expecting to get $3.3M – the junior agent quoting us a lower price was misleading (and that’s illegal).
Other considerations came to the fore as we learned more about the housing market. In the Sutherland Shire, there’s so much selling, buying, and construction going on that it was difficult to find a place for sale that didn’t already have something happening next door, or the strong prospect that a neighboring lot would be sold and then noisy works would begin. We started considering the age and lot size of neighboring houses, to gauge whether someone might want to build a duplex – they’re so bulky that they block the light and view, and would be unpleasant to have as neighbors even after completion.
One place we strongly considered had a lot going for it – big open yard, decent pool, plenty of room inside – but it was on a fairly busy road, with a bus stop right in front, and the first bus would come by at 6:40am. Brendan, the man who measures everything, owns a sound meter. We went there and waited for the bus, and determined that it would likely be very audible in the house (on inspection days it would have been impossible to know this – there was noise from people milling around talking, and the front door was kept open). We considered replacing all the windows with more modern, soundproof ones, but eventually decided to pass on that house.
Noise considerations aside, Brendan was not keen to own a house with a bus stop in front. There’s not much crime around here, but people waiting for buses have opportunity to observe the patterns of a household and figure out the best time for a break-in – as Brendan had experienced in a very different part of Sydney years ago.
The house hunt was at times entertaining, in a @zillowgonewild kind of way. For example, because it did have size and location going for it, we looked at what we came to call the Motel House. The decor, unchanged since the 1970s, reminded me strongly of American homes of my childhood, particularly my grandmother’s house in Shreveport, Louisiana. The above-ground pool was reminiscent of a motel of that era.
We’ve seen many houses with an area designated “rumpus room”, which nowadays is used to indicate a second or third family/living area, probably where you confine your rowdy teenagers. In this place, the original character of the rumpus room was preserved with a wet bar and pool table.
And the pièce de résistance:
More inexplicable features
Although gigantic main bedrooms were often key selling features, in some houses all the other bedrooms were tiny, barely big enough for a single bed and a small desk. Some homes seem to have been retrofitted for a large number of children, with the goal being to squeeze in as many rooms as possible. There are regulations about what you can call a bedroom in a real estate listing – some interior rooms with no windows were designated “study”, but this was not the kind of room we’d want to use as an office. In one house, a bedroom had been changed into an enormous walk-in closet for the main bedroom, leaving only tiny rooms for the kids.
Some floor plans for new homes designate as “study area” an open space with a built-in desk next to the kitchen, under or at the top of the stairs, or in a hallway. I could only suppose that these would appeal to parents who want to be able to oversee their kids’ schoolwork.
We saw several examples of homes set up for multi-generational families. One had completely independent living spaces on two floors, separated by a lockable door, each with its own full kitchen and living area. The grandparents had been living upstairs, the parents with three small kids downstairs. Now with a fourth grandchild on the way, the house would no longer fit them all. But any buyer who didn’t have precisely identical needs would be faced with major changes to create a usable home out of it.
Several properties had sacrificed most of the backyard to a granny flat for the aged parents. One had turned the garage into a very nice one-bedroom flat, leaving nowhere to park a car except on the street. This is a problem in Australia because of weather – hail storms can destroy a car, and the sun is fierce.
But not everyone cares as much as we do about parking cars indoors. We also saw several examples of what we had thought was a purely American phenomenon: in a house which seemed to have plenty of space for everything a family could need, the garage had been made into a workshop and/or gym, again leaving no place to park the car. In one case, the garage had been turned into a hair salon; in another, a playroom for the kids.
Bathrooms showed up in odd places. We saw more than one floorplan of a home with a full bath, including tub, located off the dining area. At least three houses we saw had a full bath inside, and another bath with toilet and shower only accessible by going outside. There was always a logic of constraint that explained these choices, but if I’m looking at a house listed as having two full baths, I expect them both to be accessible from indoors!
Some of the homes we looked at had been customized in ways that no doubt suited the current owners but might be too specific for a new owner. For example, I love this idea of a loft bed above a half-height built in wardrobe, great for a young (but not too young) child. But if you don’t have a kid in the right age range, it just looks like a thing you’ll have to redo.
One had a bedroom and bath accessible from outside that could be used as a granny flat, but was currently being used as a massage therapy studio.
One had had an addition built on that didn’t quite match up – the floor was on a different level, and the whole thing felt flimsy. It looked like another case of adding rooms to a home to accommodate more children.
The Sutherland Shire comprises several peninsulas on a river system going out to the sea. Not surprisingly, some lots have to make the best of being on a steep hillside. In both of the examples below, I was not even at the top of the property line when I took the photos!
A few houses had stained glass, which I found charming.
One house had a feature I’ve seen once or twice in other homes, and absolutely love: a bathroom that looks onto a small, private garden.
And, in this climate, many homes have beautiful tropical gardens.
The Artist’s House
One of the houses we looked at belonged to a well-known Australian artist. As the realtors say, it has “character” – of a kind I like, I would not have changed much about it. But we didn’t have much use for an art studio, and it didn’t have much open yard space. (The photo at top is also of this house.)
Another property we seriously considered backed onto the local junior rugby club, which has a field and a small building for locker rooms. We figured the club would be a good neighbor – most of the activity would be taking place after school or in the evenings, never late at night. We looked at this house several times. Once, due to a misunderstanding on timings with the agent, we could not go inside. Mitchell was with us that evening, we’d been hoping to show him the place. Wanting a look at the back of the house, we all walked around to a small grassy area behind the rugby locker rooms, backing onto the fence and pool area of the house. Mitchell suddenly clutched his ears – ”That noise! It hurts.” Brendan could hear a faint, annoying whine, I could hear nothing at all.
But I do have a good memory for weird factoids, and I remembered the controversy years ago about the Mosquito “teen repellent” device. We looked around and there it was, attached under the eaves of the locker room. Had Mitchell not been with us, we would never have noticed it. We had no idea whether it was audible inside the house. Given the 30-meter range these things are supposed to have, it would certainly make using the backyard and pool impossible for Mitchell and his friends.
I emailed the seller’s agent to ask if they knew anything about this, and whether we might come to some accommodation with the rugby club about it. It seemed likely that they wanted to stop kids from hanging out in that area, but perhaps we could accomplish that with a security camera? The agent never gave us a direct response, but let us know via Edwin that compromise was not likely. We wondered whether the thing was only on after some particular time, such as 5pm.
We were fairly certain that Brendan’s sound meter, as well as a sound app on my phone, could detect the Mosquito’s frequency, and we went back one evening (around 7pm) to test this hypothesis. This time there was no sound at all. The thing had mysteriously been turned off, just in time for an open inspection of the house the next morning, when we had planned to take Mitchell along to test whether he could hear the device from inside. Unable to perform that test and by now suspicious of the whole situation, we gave up on that house. It was auctioned to a developer who planned to knock it down and build a triplex on the lot. I hope the future buyers don’t have children.