SINCE 1997

Through tragedy and triumph, expats return to a tough property market

An already overheated, undersupplied Australian property market is bracing for a wave of expatriate Australians, who are gradually returning home with the country’s borders now reopened.

Father and four young children in colourful clothes on the beach.
Duncan Schieb and children Charlie (9), Matilda (7), Molly (5) and Oscar (3) are enjoying the change from New York.

An already overheated, undersupplied Australian property market is bracing for a wave of expatriate Australians, who are gradually returning home with the country’s borders now reopened.

For many, the past two years have been a harrowing experience. Effectively locked out of their own countries for two years due to the Covid pandemic and subsequent absence of flights, families were separated, lives disrupted and plans put on hold as people grappled with surviving the crisis.

Duncan Schieb grew up in the farming district of Coonamble on the central-western plains of New South Wales and could scarcely have been further from his roots during 12 years in New York and earlier stints in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong.

An horrendous family heartbreak was the catalyst for Mr Schieb to move his family, including four children aged three to nine, back to Australia.

“We had a personal tragedy with the death of one of our children; Lachlan was Oscar's identical twin and died suddenly in February 2020.

“We were then hit with Covid right after and with that and subsequent financial impact, I decided we were better off back in Australia.

“In my opinion, the standard of living in Australia is still the best in the world and being closer to family was also a big consideration.”

But the pathway back was blocked for months and the obstacles upon arrival still a challenge.

“It was terrible when we were trying to get back.

“We started in July 2020 and managed to get home in December 2020 after five flight cancellations.

“It was stressful, as I was bringing four children back to Australia.

“We had to continue to change school arrangements and at one point had the children booked in for the final term in Coonamble but the continued flight cancellations put an end to all of that.

With the first focus on schooling for the children, they settled on an independent school at Collaroy.

“As we had never lived on the beaches, it would give us the flexibility to try out suburbs.

“With bus runs from Mosman to Manly and St Ives to Palm Beach, we could move to different areas and not disrupt the children's education and not have to move schools if we decided a suburb wasn't for us.”

Border openings are also putting upward pressure on rental market.

“The rental market was mental when we first got back; we had the Northern beaches lockdown, and then we had to bop around Airbnb for a little while, including North Curl Curl, Dee Why, and now I am in Narrabeen on the beach.

“We went with an apartment as we were used to that from New York City, and we are right on the beach, so the lifestyle change for the kids has been tremendous.”

A recent report by Knight Frank Australia indicated demand from overseas buyers was still strong, including among expats and those looking to migrate to Australia via the Significant Investor Visa or Global Talent and other programs.

Anecdotally, Mr Schieb said the influx was appeared imminent.

“I know of at least 30 people who have returned from the US, Hong Kong, Singapore and UK over the past 18 months,” he said.

“Many more are looking at returning, and being close to family and lifestyle is the main driving force.”

The Knight Frank Global Buyer Survey reported that, despite some signs of the Sydney top end of town slowing, among expats and international migrants the prime ($5 million) and super prime ($10 million) markets were experiencing strong enquiries, with limited stock available.

“The uptick in demand identified in prime residential sales was supported by the survey results,” said Ben Burston, report author of Knight Frank Australia.

“Some 39 per cent of expatriate respondents have bought a property since returning home.

“Around 20 per cent purchased a primary residence, 7 per cent a second home and for 11 per cent it will be a co-primary home that they may retire to in the long term.

For 43 per cent of the respondents, they already had a home to return to and 18 per cent opted to rent.

The survey confirmed that the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong, United Kingdom and the Philippines were the key locations from which expatriates were returning.

Hong Kong hassles

Thirty-year resident of Hong Kong Paul Hart was forced to spend two forced years apart from his wife and family, after his wife transferred her job in January 2020 from Hong Kong to Sydney to be close to their 21-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son.

A senior executive in the real estate advisory and brokerage industry, Mr Hart had no idea at the time that a global pandemic would hit and his own passport become worthless in getting him back to Australia, even to visit.

“Our daughter was in her final year of university while our son, who was at boarding school, started year 12.

“Thank heavens she did move, as Sydney was in and out of lockdown, and she was able to be with our son when the board schools closed.”

When it came to securing a property, Australia’s overcooked housing market presented some challenges.

“Sydney was always our only option, and given our son’s boarding school, we gravitated towards the inner west,” he said.

“My wife started looking at Glebe in mid-2020 but she quickly realised she was being priced out of the market and explored nearby suburbs. 

“She had ten properties in solicitors’ hands before she purchased in Lilyfield.”

While expats around the world are free to return, those in Hong Kong are still facing pandemic-related restrictions.

Although Australia has opened its border, Hong Kong in its pursuit of dynamic zero-Covid, has not. Passenger flights from eight countries, Australia included, have been banned, adding another layer of complication for long-suffering expats trying to return to their home country.    

“Hong Kong is two years into the pandemic and there is no relief or relaxation in sight,” Mr Hart said.

“I have many friends in the aviation industry and with Hong Kong’s ongoing travel restrictions, this has devastated the industry, and many families have left.

“Several friends are nearing the end of their careers, and Covid has facilitated their early departure and I also have a number of friends with younger families who have taken, or are considering, a temporary relocation out of the city while current restrictions are in place.”

More market pressures

Affordability continues to be a major issue for many Australian homebuyers and returning expats are set to add fuel to the fire.

Pete Wargent, co-founder of property buying service BuyersBuyers the question was, where is everyone going to live?

“Globally, financial markets are becoming somewhat spooked by a number of risks, such as rising inflation from the food and energy crisis, an ensuing possible increase in interest rates, and very concerning geopolitical uncertainties.”

“There have been forecasts about geopolitical uncertainties being a negative for Australian property, but we are seeing that play out quite differently on the ground.

“Indeed, housing finance is still running at record levels, and credit growth for investors is now on the rise.”

In Western Australia, the border reopening is a crucial component in delivering much-needed skilled labour to the state.

REIWA President Damian Collins said in the short term, the border opening would exacerbate Perth’s housing shortage but was a necessary step.

“We need to attract skilled workers into the state to help with the construction of houses and bring balance back to the market,” he said.

WA is still the most affordable state in the country for housing and that appears unlikely to change even as demand for property increases in the coming months.

“REIWA considers a balanced market to be around 13,000 properties for sale in Perth.

“We now have almost 5,000 less listings for sale on the market than we would consider balanced.”

Stella Huangfu, Associate Professor for the School of Economics at University of Sydney argued the border openings would have a minimal impact on property prices but had implications for rental markets and interest rates.

“With the reopening of the border, especially with the arrival of international students, we will definitely see a surge in rental demand and rents, which could in turn attract some investors to the housing market.

The border reopening would also speed up the recovery of education, service, and tourist sectors, all of which could contribute to inflation, Ms Huangfu said.

“The reopening of border will help to ease the tight domestic labour market and slow wage growth.

“Although inflation prospects are still unclear, the financial market is expecting an increase in the official rate by the RBA towards the end of this year.

“The high rate will help to cool down the demand side of the housing market, so overall, my prediction is that housing prices will remain flat through the remainder of the year, which should be good news for both potential buyers and vendors.”

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