Kiwis are waving goodbye to cities and going up country, in the search of an affordable home and lifestyle.
Hana Makin took the long route, leaving Manchester in England to eventually find housing happiness in tiny Featherston, Wairarapa, via York then flatting in Petone.
Turei Haronga was more direct. He and wife Christine sold up in Wellington two years ago to head to Hawke’s Bay, near the ancestral marae. Hastings beat out Napier and Havelock North by offering better value.
It wasn’t in their original plan, but Southlander Jo McKenzie and fiance Aaron Watson moved to Alexandra in Central Otago three years ago and haven’t looked back.
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Queenstown and Wānaka were never considered. Cromwell and Clyde were also ruled too expensive.
Three families – all at different life stages – are all searching out more affordable lives as the cost of housing (renting and buying) climbs.
In Auckland, the median house price has fallen to $1.17 million, Queenstown, Wellington and Tauranga all sit around the $1m mark.
It is making towns that are less central more attractive. Featherston has a median house price just over $700,000, while the Hastings median is $680,000, and Alexandra sits at $685,000.
For Makin, it’s a first home, with husband Will Aitkenhead. They moved to Featherston in December 2020, and love life in a town of fewer than 3000, after living in Lower Hutt.
Cheaper housing and living closer to her Masterton-based in-laws drove their decision.
“Featherston made sense to us for lots of other reasons, too. We wanted to be out of the city – although at the time we moved we both had city jobs, the commute is doable and a more rural life suits us better.”
And yes, Makin had swiftly vanquished fears the town would be too small. In fact, its size has proved part of the charm.
“The people here are so welcoming, and there’s a real drive here to make things happen,” she says.
“The community gets together to organise events and support each other. People know my name and stop for a chat when I’m in the shops or out for a walk with the dog.
“I feel like we belong here – when we were renting closer to the city, we didn’t really know anyone!”
For Turei Haronga, it’s a return to his roots, and a freeing up of money for a retirement that is proving as busy as his city career.
He’s growing cabbage trees on his section, then planting them out to stem coastal erosion at Waimarama, where he does volunteer electrical work at the marae.
He’s learning to grow trees, as well as developing a family block where his parents slept in a dwelling that had dirt floors.
”I’m very busy,” he understates.
”The whole reason for being here is to give back. It’s whānau, it’s where I’m from, and where I want to end up. I’m happy to have lived in all the cities I’ve lived in, we’ve enjoyed them.
”We always planned to get back here, it’s just that it took so long.”
Less expensive areas make it easier to afford a normal life as groceries, inflation, petrol prices and mortgages soar.
It’s a perfect storm that has younger people wondering how they can ever buy a home, even as house prices start to fall.
This week the Reserve Bank said one and two-year fixed mortgages would reach “about 6%” within a year, so some households “will find it difficult to pay their mortgages and cover all their other usual expenses”.
One way of minimising that pain is to head out of the rat race to towns where median house prices give you a fighting chance. Commuting is no longer vital, in the “have computer, don’t need to travel” era.
Searching out city satellite towns can be a wise move, Wellington-based property researcher Ian Mitchell says.
“One of the things the last Census showed is there is a definite difference between the main metropolitan areas and the provincial centres and local authorities around the periphery of the main metropolitan areas.”
City fringes offer “relatively affordable” standalone dwellings that cities may not, Mitchell says.
That’s driving buyers to towns near Christchurch such as Rangiora, Rolleston, and Lincoln where they can buy new dwellings at relatively affordable prices.
Around Wellington, Wairarapa has a reliable train service into the city, as does the Kāpiti Coast. Even Horowhenua further north is becoming an option, as the Transmission Gully motorway cuts travel time.
Quitting urban areas to maximise your housing spend is not all win-win, but the chances of it being lose-lose are lower economist Cameron Bagrie says.
“House prices in the regions are cheaper than many big centres, but not cheap,” he says.
“Rising interest costs still bite, even in the regions and will force some spending reprioritisation.
“But odds are buying in a less expensive part of New Zealand means you will have a smaller mortgage. You are being hit, just not as hard.”
Nor is it win-win for those who already live in towns drawing attention from the wealthier intent on quitting urban areas. That process simply moves the climbing house price problems elsewhere, Mitchell says.
“Kāpiti Coast is a prime example. A lot of Wellingtonians who are buying up there on the coast. Transmission Gully and various motorway improvements, which were long overdue, make it a lot easier for people to get up there,” he says.
“And as a consequence, the locals are really struggling to be able to afford to buy dwellings in the location where they live and work. That’s not an issue unique to New Zealand, it happens all over the world.”
As well, the tide of how much a home is worth tends to wash in and out.
The recent house price fall is far from over, QV general manager David Nagel said in a release this week.
“It appears that what began as a tightening and then a reduction at the more-affordable end of the market … is now beginning to impact on home values much further up the property ladder.”
Amanda McKay and Deon Cartwright moved out of Auckland to Whangārei at the end of October 2016, about two months before their second daughter was born.
“We were looking to move to a larger house in Auckland, we looked at a few different options, but it meant a larger commitment with our mortgage, and not really in the area we wanted to be in,” she says.
When the opportunity to move to Whangārei, to manage the family avocado orchard loomed, one of the key factors was it allowed them to upsize more easily. One fear was McKay would miss the buzz of Auckland, and knew few people.
“I won’t lie, I still miss the hustle and bustle of Auckland. But I have made some great friends up here, many who have also relocated to Whangārei,” she says.
“It’s given us an opportunity to do something completely different by leaving Auckland and a move out of our corporate roles.
“My husband loves being an orchardist and has become quite involved in the industry. Plus, who doesn’t love a good supply of smashed avocado on toast.”
As well, there are beautiful beaches to explore, with daughters Mila 7, and Eva 5.
The family is part of a trend that appears unlikely to end in the immediate future.
House prices are forecast to hit their lowest point by the middle of 2023, but will still be 32% higher than before the pandemic.
While wages have gone up 18% from pre-pandemic levels, an increase in the cost of living (17%) has eaten much of that away.
Which takes us back to the country, and the happy urban-flight set.
Makin works for Fab Feathy (short for Fabulous Featherston). Her husband works in a Wellington-based government job.
“We wish we’d moved here sooner,” she says.
Similar joy is exuded from Alexandra, where McKenzie and her family live on a small rural block while she trains in Wānaka to be a counsellor.
Alexandra doesn’t have every facility, but it has everything you need to live a good life, she says. Adventure towns Queenstown and Wānaka are just an hour away.
“We came here for the price, we contemplated going to Cromwell, but this was more affordable definitely and also we sort of felt there was more of a community hub and rural feel.
“There are so many opportunities here because there are a lack of services compared to some places, so it is only going to develop and grow.”
“There are great local cafés, probably not so good for dinner-time meals just yet, but it is getting better. They are turning the centre of town into a café, bar hub and I think there are a lot of opportunities for development here.
“School is close by, and the bus gets the kids from the end of the driveway. There are bike trails everywhere, there are so many walking trails too. In every nook and cranny you go to we are finding something different every month here.”
And now, a couple who are staying put for the same reasons others are moving; it saves money.
Karen and Campbell Beeby have lived in Winton for 40 years. They both love it; it’s community focussed and allows them to do all they want without the hassle of traffic or travel.
“Winton caters for pretty much all of our needs. It is nice and close to Invercargill if we need to access hospital, or anything that isn’t available,” says Karen.
House prices have gone up, but compared with Central Otago, where they originally planned to retire, they are dirt cheap – if you can find one.
“There are fewer on the market, and they sell quite quickly,” she says.
They will stay put., she says. Why change a winning formula?
If you too are searching for a winning formula, try these towns on for size. (Median prices do not reflect the quality of the housing on offer).
Kerikeri (Far North), 240km from Auckland, population 8050, median price $985,000, six houses below $600,000 listed.
Kerikeri manages to be both historic and modern, with an airport making it less isolated in the “winterless” North than other options. It is more of a residential town than touristy Bay of Islands, though nearby Kawakawa ($440,000) is cheaper. New Zealand’s oldest wooden building and the oldest stone building sit alongside the town’s river. And then there’s the nice weather.
Waihi (Bay of Plenty), 61km from Tauranga, pop 5790, median price $645,000, eight houses listed below $600,000.
Bay of Plenty is growing fast, which has driven up prices in Tauranga and surrounds. Nestled at the top end of the Bay of Plenty, the former gold mining town is the sweet spot between churning Tauranga (knocking a $1m median) and the ever-popular Coromandel Peninsula. It has good facilities, Waihi College, and is a short distance from the surf and sand of Waihi Beach. As a negative, the roads out (to Thames Valley, to Tauranga) are difficult, and mining or its leftovers can be a deterrent. Other options are Katikati ($865,000), Paeroa ($580,000) and Thames ($785,000).
Hastings (Hawke’s Bay), 16km from Napier, pop 50,100, median price $680,000, 39 properties listed below $600,000.
Hastings gets the nod ahead of Havelock North and Napier on price, and being close enough to both to be a big flat suburb of both. House prices there have fallen 6% in three months. Napier has the regional airport, but Hastings has swift access to the roads south. It has strong Ngāti Kahungunu culture, and is one of walking and cycling “model communities”, encouraging people to use active forms of transport. It’s Hawke’s Bay is big on wine, and sport, with cricket internationals played there.
Whanganui (Manawatu-Whanganui), 73km from Palmerston North, pop 42,300, median price $440,000, 103 houses listed below $600,000.
Manawatu-Whanganui house prices have been dropping, making Whanganui and Palmerston North ($710,000) viable small city options, with all the facilities most need. Whanganui has long been regarded as culturally rich, home to excellent schools (Prince Edward attended Wanganui Collegiate), and sporting facilities. Police officers posted there rate it highly. Other options: Marton ($540,000) or Feilding ($640,000).
Featherston (Wairarapa), 64km from Wellington, pop 2710, median price $715,000, eight houses listed below $600,000.
Featherston has lived in the shadow of Wairarapa siblings Greytown, Martinborough and Carterton as a place to live. That is changing, as young professionals and first home buyers take advantage of its location on the railway line to Wellington. Being on the main road to Masterton, at the foot of the Remutaka Range means it has more and better cafes than you’d expect in a small town and… oddly, several bookshops.
Lincoln (Canterbury), 21km from Christchurch, pop 8920, median price $975,000, seven houses listed below $600,000.
Home to Lincoln University, it’s the place for you if you love studying agriculture or cricket – New Zealand Cricket’s high performance centre is based in Lincoln. The 2006 census showed 53% of employed residents worked in Christchurch. Rangiora ($730,000) might also suit.
Alexandra (Central Otago), 92km from Queenstown, pop 5970, median price $685,000, 21 houses listed below $600,000.
“Alex” is not far from the action in Queenstown, and under three hours from Dunedin and Invercargill. It is substantially cheaper than Cromwell and Clyde ($860,000), which are in turn eclipsed by Queenstown and Wanaka (both over $1m). In terms of weather, it’s great if you don’t like rain, but have no problem with sunshine and frosts.
Winton (Southland), 32km from Invercargill, pop 2450, median price $485,000, three houses listed below $600,000.
Live in Winton, work in Invercargill? That’s the lifestyle choice with rural Winton having a median price a tick higher than Invercargill. It’s warmer, drier and less windy than Invercargill and coastal Southland, and an agriculture service town favoured by retired farmers.
Sources: Stats NZ, Real Estate Institute, Homes NZ