Saturday, August 31, 2013

House hunting in Melbourne

Front of our house
I wont keep you in suspense and will just cut to the chase … WE FOUND A HOUSE!  I love everything about it. But I wanted to say a little bit about renting a house in Melbourne for others who may be considering it.
As part of my relocation package (and I expect this is not uncommon with relocations) I got to work with a relocation agent for two days. You can add days if you need to, but this is on an exception basis. The first day is considered your neighborhood overview day, and you drive around a get a feel for the vibe of a neighborhood, what the schools are like, and if there are  restaurants and shopping nearby.

I had of course been looking at things online before going out with the agent, as well as asking friends and colleagues about neighborhoods. Everyone will have his/her own set of criteria for picking a neighborhood, and in many cases it will depend on schools. For us this was not an issue since only my younger son traveled to Australia and he is already in college. I had given it some thought and decided that we did not need to live by the ocean (technically it is a bay, but it is so large that it feels like being by the ocean). My thinking was that it would be pricier and would get crowded with beach-goers in the summer. When we wanted to go to the beach, we would just get in our car and drive there. 
Bay at Brighton
  Well, all this thinking went out the window the first morning of my house-hunting trip. After driving through a couple of neighborhoods just outside CBD (e.g. Albert Park, Middle Park) we got to the Brighton area. We pretty much just drove through St. Kilda, which was described to me by a person at work as the “former red light district” and by my relocation agent as an area that is most likely enjoyed by people younger than my husband and I. Yes there are prostitutes and drug dealers there, but there are also night clubs and bars and fun places if you have more energy than we tend to on weekends. 

I was completely smitten by the quality of light and the air in Brighton. We stopped by the beach area (and saw the famous Brighton bathing boxes) and the water is beautiful and clear, more reminiscent of the waters near an island than a bay that supports a large port and major metropolis. Between the beach and the Beach Road (a significant road with two lanes in each direction) are large parks for riding bikes, playing with your dog or just strolling along. We did continue on to visit other neighborhoods such as the suburbs to the East of Melbourne (e.g. Malvern, Toorak) and I looked at some listing in Northern Melbourne. But once a heart is captured, there can be no turning back. This was in many ways a good thing, since it allowed us to focus our search down to just the south-east neighborhoods. 

We stopped in to view a few houses on the first day of the search. In Melbourne (and probably in all of Australia) you are required by law to actually place feet in the house (or apartment) before you can rent it. The practical way to accommodate this is to have the equivalent of ‘open houses’ where the agent is on the premises for a small window of time (usually 15 minutes) and people can register their interest. Fortunately, one can also arrange private viewings, which my relocation agent helped with. I started to get very discouraged.
As alluded to in an earlier blog post, houses in Melbourne are in general smaller than what we are used to in the U.S. and more expensive. Since our move was very rushed and I wasn’t even in the country anymore when the packers showed up, we ended up shipping about 90% of our furniture here. We have a house that is greater than 3.5k sq ft in the US, so that translates to a fair amount of belongings. Interestingly, they don’t list or even measure the size of houses here. While of course it would be in square meters if it did show up anyplace, they just don’t do it. They list instead the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and parking spaces. This leaves a big range for other things, like whether there is a formal and an informal lounge (what we would refer to as the living room and den or family room), whether there is a dining room, a study (i.e. office), etc. etc. If it has a closet, (referred to a B.I.R. for built-in-robe) it is a bedroom. Sadly, I saw houses where rooms without BIRs where included in the number of bedrooms listed. You can imagine what those look like, with clothes hanging on a portable bar and stuffed into plastic boxes. Mind you, these were not inexpensive houses either. 
The prices are listed here by the week. To get the monthly rent, you don’t simply multiply by 4. This is because in Australia they like to charge you for every day of the year and not all months have the same number of days. (So to get the monthly, you have to divide by 7 multiply by 365 and then divide by 12 ….) We were looking in the 950 a week to 1200 a week. Quite a range, I agree. And not inexpensive. But to get a house (rather than an apartment) in walking distance to a train line and that does not require a very long commute, this is what it costs. You would think that for this price all the places I looked at would be terrific. Not so.
Some were tiny, some were on noisy roads, some had virtually no heat (electric portable units). Many had been partially refurbished. In most cases I liked some thing about the house but there were things that I thought might be difficult for us to live with. In the more modern houses, the rooms are smaller. In this way they can list it as a 3 bedroom 2 bath, but often the square footage of the house is probably close to 1200 sq ft. Something I saw a lot and really didn’t like, is the fact that the master bedroom (and you know it is the master because it has the largest closest space and the ensuite bathroom) is the first door off the left (or the right) as you walk into the house. To me this seems like a funny location, plus it has the significant disadvantage of facing the road and/or the parking area. When I commented on this to one of the real-estate agents, she replied: “this is how we do it here in Australia. You’ll get used it”. My relocation agent wasn’t too pleased with this cavalier attitude and my thinking was that I was definitely not going to get ‘used to it’. 
 In the end we found this property. It is a wonderful old house built in the 1930s with two floors, which I decided was important to me. It also has more rooms/space than we really need but the good news is that all our furniture will fit. 

 It is a somewhat formal house, considering our current home is very modern but it has a lot of charm and feels bright and airy.

 The back yard is not large by many standards but for Melbourne it is on the large size and it is filled with birds - in particular turtle doves. The lady who lived here before it was sold was here for 27 years. She didn't have internet and she didn't have cable TV (we have had to install both) but she loved her garden and flowers. 

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