When I was a kid, scoring a luxurious $5-per-week in pocket money, I thought millionaires were the richest people in the world. “One million dollars!” I’d think to myself. It was my personal yardstick of astronomical wealth, a sum only Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump and Scrooge McDuck — suited-up white men and cartoon birds — could have possibly earned. For the rest of us, it was a nice daydream. Sometimes I’d list all the things I’d buy with a million dollars, like a vending machine in every room, or a pet dolphin in my waterfall pool. A million dollars: it was a dizzying amount of money that bordered on the ridiculous.
I never thought I’d see houses regularly go on sale for a million dollars. But lately, in my inner-city Brisbane suburb, this seems to be the going price for most places. Most of them are two level family homes with a yard, stainless steel appliances and no discernible traces of asbestos. They’re nicely renovated houses, but not mansions by any stretch. Of course, you don’t need to spend a million dollars to own a home in a capital city. In Melbourne, the current average house price is $524,500. In Brisbane, it’s $451,400, and if you’re hunting in Sydney, you’re looking at $609,300, give or take. In young people’s terms, that’s 338 round-the-world flights or four black-market human livers. (I actually researched this.)
Needless to say, I’m getting the feeling that I’m going to be renting for the rest of my life. Emilio, an architect buddy of mine, blogged about this recently, and it hit a nerve with me. “You can beg your way into a six or 12 month lease with the constant reminder your stay is temporary and precarious,” he wrote, “or you can take your chance on the ‘Australian Dream’ – wherever that may be.” Temporary and precarious: that probably sums up a lot of our living situations right now. We’re the generation who lives in fear of mid-year letters from our real estate agents, and we all masochistically pray for rent increases, rather than the alternative horror of an eviction notice.
Renting is cool, but it can also be a drag. My first rental was an old Queenslander, a wooden, south-facing beast of a thing. It had its own charm, but it also had shower pipes that burst open with seasonal changes, causing mushrooms to sprout up through the lino. My bedroom’s walls were decorative rather than functional: in winter, cold air blew in through the corners; in summer, ants came climbed through and marched into my jocks. My sisters’ last share house was advertised as “furnished” – a good deal, they thought, until they discovered the blood stains on the mattresses.
We endure these places because we hold onto some firmly-held conviction that renting is only temporary, a young person’s thing, and that we’ll eventually have a place to call our own. Less and less of us are hanging onto that dream, though. In April this year, one survey found a third of Australian respondents born after 1980 felt permanently locked out of the housing market. Why? Well, there are a whole lot of reasons — skewed property taxation regimes; national real estate prices outstripping average wage increases; government incentives for investment properties — things I can barely understand without the aid of pie charts and Alan Kohler.
But hey: maybe the Australian dream needs a makeover too. My cousins in Hong Kong would never dream of buying a place of their own, and I’m starting to question why I should feel entitled to own a massive house with a lawn. I don’t even like lawns. They’re expensive to maintain, constantly require water, and a dedicated mower who isn’t a lazy bastard like me. And I sort of like the fact that my rented apartment doesn’t require insulation: the fact I have upstairs neighbours insulates it for me.
If I really want to own my own place, I still have a few options. I could wait for my parents to die, although this is slightly ghoulish and would start a fight between my siblings. On the other hand, I could set my sights on becoming a millionaire. The only question is how? Wait a minute, don’t tell me. I know this one. Because most people tell me the same thing: apparently, there’s a lot of money to be made in real estate.