IN THE MIDST OF THE ZOOM BOOM, FAMILIES AND YOUNG AUSTRALIANS ARE HEARING THE CALL OF THE COUNTRY, WITH RECORD NUMBERS LEAVING THE BRIGHT LIGHTS OF THE CITY FOR THE SIMPLE LIFE, AS LOUIS WHITE DISCOVERS.

IT’S NO SECRET that Australians like to be beside the seaside. A beautiful home with multiple storeys, spectacular ocean views and a lush green backyard — either in Portsea, Sydney’s Palm Beach or Perth’s Cottesloe Beach — is a privilege that many Australians aspire to.

A recent report from McCrindle shows that 90% of us live within 100 kilometres of the beach. But while many of us still dream of a prestige home with sea views, there has been a bit of a shift during the pandemic; coastal regions are teeming with newcomers, yes, but we’re also seeing more city slickers escaping to the country.

The ocean will always have its pull but it seems that many of us also desire a rolling acreage with a hinterland backdrop and the sounds of nature.

A report from the Regional Australia Institute in February 2021 revealed that one in five city residents wanted to move to the regions within the next 12 months, with 77% of respondents citing space and connection to nature as the main reasons. Traffic congestion and a chance to reduce the cost of living were other popular reasons, at 70% and 68% respectively.

“My family and I moved last year, from Sydney’s North Shore to Nulkaba in the Hunter Valley, where we bought a farm,” says Alex West, the CEO of the ASX-listed telco Swoop. “It was something my wife, Joanne, and I always wanted to do but hadn’t, as it wasn’t suitable for work.

“During the pandemic, we realised that working from home allowed us to work from almost anywhere. With the Swoop offices also shifting to remote working when the first Sydney lockdowns started, it gave us the chance to move away from the busy city life to the country.”

One of the main considerations was the children’s education. The Wests have three kids: Sophie, 14, Will, 12, and Zac, nine. “With my middle son, Will, about to start high school, we thought the timing was right,” West says.

“All three children have coped quite well, aside from what you might normally expect at their age. They are still involved in the same things as they were in Sydney and continue to play sport. They were impacted by the pandemic more than anything else.”

With Newcastle Airport close by, West has no problem moving around the country and says the extra space at home and on the 16-hectare property benefits everyone. Plus, he adds, “Lifestyle and schooling are much more affordable when you move to regional Australia. We have the same number of opportunities here as in the city. And it provides a different perspective on lifestyle, too, for my children.”

During the pandemic, many Australians re-evaluated what they want from their home: for some, like the Wests, it was more space; for others, it was a rural or coastal backdrop, or an architecturally designed home that embraces the elements.

The statistics don’t lie. Australian Bureau of Statistics data for the March 2021 quarter revealed a net migration of 104,100 people to interstate locations. This is a 19% increase on the corresponding quarter from the previous 12 months and the highest it has been since 1996. The biggest shift was people leaving Victoria.

The same quarter also saw the biggest loss of people from capital cities since the bureau started collecting this data in 2001. “For the better part of 20 years, Australians have longed for a sea change,” Bernard Salt, the executive director of The Demographics Group, says. “This has now morphed into a tree change. The coronavirus pandemic has just expedited that outflow from cities into regional Australia, with Melburnians leading the way.

“What is interesting from the ABS data is [that it shows] those aged 25–44 are moving into coastal and rural towns, whereas previously it had been the 55-plus group.” As Salt notes, the city exodus would not have been possible if the pandemic had happened in 2009. “If the NBN had not been rolled out, the work-from-home shift, which has been hugely successful over the past two years, would have been a disaster.”

Now, Salt says, “people don’t want to commute to work. They want to move beyond the metropolitan cities and do their job from their new residence.”

On the regions most favoured by city expats, Salt says, “Australians are driven by lifestyle. Where we move to has to be a lifestyle destination: either near beaches, the countryside or the airport. If you can combine two or three of those aspects, even better.”

Liz Jensen is an early adopter of the coastal lifestyle, having moved to the picture- perfect town of Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula at the age of 19. “I fell in love with the place as a child, coming here for school holidays,” she says. Jensen opened a health food store but the business next door — a real estate agency — caught her eye and she soon realised there was more money in property than lentils.

Above: a contemporary Tuerong home overlooks 40 lush hectares and includes one of the finest vineyards on the Mornington Peninsula. Below: Port Phillip Bay and a distant CBD, seen from Red Hill.

Today, some 30 years later, Jensen is the director of Kay & Burton’s Portsea arm. “Sorrento and Portsea have so much to offer with the little coved beaches and Point Nepean National Park,” she says. “There’s the salty air, the crashing waves of the ocean and a big sky that constantly seems to change — so many people tell me they love the big sky you get when you’re living on the coast.”

Andrew Hines, the director of Kay & Burton’s nearby Flinders office, which covers the entire Mornington Peninsula, has also been flat-out over the past few months as more and more Melburnians make the move. “Housing is more affordable from Flinders to Portsea and what used to be a popular holiday destination has become a permanent residence for many,” he says.

“People are over the hustle and bustle of town,” he adds, noting that when couples or families relocate, they tend to be focused on making the most of the Peninsula lifestyle. “New residents are finding that their social life is more active than ever,” he says.

Of course, this mass migration has impacted prices, with Hines estimating an increase of about 50% over the past 10 years. “There are no signs of that abating,” he says, “but it is still affordable.”

The main attractions are the Peninsula’s schools, beaches, fresh produce and ease of movement. “We are only 70 minutes away from the Melbourne CBD and the only time you hit traffic lights is when you are turning into the city,” says Hines. “You can actually drive to Sydney and the first traffic lights you hit are in Randwick.”