Quarter acre dream is over for many regional land buyers

Nicole Sobey and her partner purchased a 350 square metre block in Ballarat in 2020. Picture: Luke Hemer
Nicole Sobey and her partner purchased a 350 square metre block in Ballarat in 2020. Picture: Luke Hemer

It's widely accepted that the quarter acre dream is dead in Australia's capital cities, but land shortages in regional hotspots mean buyers here are now having to downsize their backyard and scale up their budgets.

The rush to regional areas in the wake of the pandemic, the uptick in new home sales as a result of grant schemes like HomeBuilder and the generally slow pace at which local authorities rezone land have all contributed to a boom in land prices, experts say.

In Ballarat, for example, land prices have risen over the past five years by 96 per cent, compared to 45 per cent in Melbourne, according to land sales and marketing agency RPM Real Estate Group.

Prices had grown a massive 36 per cent in the year to September 2021 alone, and now sit at a median price of $268,000, according to the group's latest Greenfield Market Report.

But a lack of new supply there had meant the number of lot sales was actually down by 39 per cent during the same period.

Block sizes are getting smaller in many regional markets. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Block sizes are getting smaller in many regional markets. Picture: Sylvia Liber

The median lot size there is now 448 square metres and is on a "downward trajectory", according to the report.

For reference, a quarter acre is equivalent to 1012 square metres.

RPM managing director of project marketing, Luke Kelly said that in the wake of the land squeeze, many developers had reduced lot sizes in order to help maintain the city's affordability edge over Melbourne blocks.

"Ballarat used to be a lot bigger than 448...The percentage of the smaller stock is a lot higher now," Mr Kelly said.

The Greenfield report stated that "for Ballarat to once again be affordable and attractive (compared to areas like Moorabool and Melton), additional supply across all of Ballarat's regions need to come on market".

Ballarat resident Nicole Sobey is all too familiar with the land squeeze, both as a purchaser of a block of land and as a member of the local building industry.

Ms Sobey and her partner have chosen to build a smaller, more affordable home on the block. Picture: Luke Hemer

Ms Sobey and her partner have chosen to build a smaller, more affordable home on the block. Picture: Luke Hemer

Ms Sobey, who is a draftsperson at homebuilding company Hearty Homes, purchased a block of land in a new residential estate at Smythes Creek in mid-2020.

"I purchased a 350 square metre block of land for $150,000 in July 2020 and they are now selling for $250,000 to $300,000 a year later... I think by the time the second lockdown happened everyone was keen to move out of Melbourne," she said.

"Four years ago you could get 700 square metres for $130,000 in the same area," she said.

She said blocks had been selling fast for some time.

"Something I noticed when the release was available for the estate I bought in, I was in notified around 3pm and by the time I'd gotten on to the sale agent around 60 per cent of the blocks had already sold."

"A lot of it [securing land] in Ballarat is who you know and what kind of rapport you have with the sale agent"

While she, and many others in the city, were no longer living the "dream of the big backyard", she said it was relatively easy to adapt to the reality of a smaller house.

"I chose to buy a smaller block so that I could build something smaller and more affordable and I very much think that's the way we are headed," she said.

"$150,000 might sound cheap but by the time you build a house it's a lot more than that," she added.

Those who were chasing bigger land sizes now tended to move further out of town, Ms Sobey said.

In response to shrinking lot sizes, Hearty Homes had been developing new house plans to suit smaller blocks.

"At the moment we're actually designing a new range we're having to rethink new floorplans to suit these small blocks... A lot of builders are having to come up with designs that will work on these small blocks," she said.

Planning expert Dr Shane Geha said that the problem wasn't just isolated to Victoria's major cities, with regional hubs throughout the country also suffering from an inability to quickly rezone land in the face of a growing population.

Likening the task facing regional councils to that of a person being asked to run a marathon with no training, he said many councils simply did not have the staffing required to efficiently rezone enough land to meet supply.

"What happens in that rezoning process is it chokes supply. By the time the land gets approved for rezoning that's a three, four or five year process," he said.

"[When land is in short supply] the only way you can deliver more affordable product to the market ... the only thing you can really do to affect price, if the rules permit it, is to make the lot sizes smaller," he said.

Dr Geha said that the level of demand for regional housing may taper off in coming years, as capital cities reopen, but that it was unlikely prices in regional markets would go backwards.

Instead, those who had purchased smaller lots may achieve smaller rates of capital gains in the years ahead.

"The larger blocks will grow more. Land appreciates over time and the the house depreciates, that's essentially what happens in broad terms," he said.

This story Quarter acre dream is over for many regional land buyers first appeared on The Courier.