Eureka! Striking it rich in Ballarat
The Sunday Age
Sunday February 28, 2010
The gold rush city is still drawing people from far and wide. Karin Derkley meets two families who found life in the regional hub too good to pass up. FOR those who have despaired of being able to own a period-style home within a couple of kilometres of the city centre, Ballarat is a dream come true. The same building boom of the late-1800s that filled Melbourne's inner suburbs with Victorian homes also filled the streets of inner Ballarat, then still flush with the proceeds of the gold rush.The big difference is that while an unrenovated, and thus affordable, period home in Melbourne has become rare, in Ballarat there are streets and streets of lovely weatherboard houses in need of some tender loving care, with a price tag under $300,000.Further afield, but still within 10-minutes drive of the city centre, you can find comfortable modern houses on large blocks for around the same price.Agent Alex Campbell, the director of PRD Jens Gaunt, says the low prices in Ballarat are not justified. "Ballarat is incredibly undervalued," says Campbell. "And I think it's just a matter of time before people work out that they can either spend $400,000 living on the far fringes of Melbourne where they have to drive at least an hour into the CBD, or get a very nice period home in a quality area in Ballarat walking distance from the CBD, or a very comfortable well-appointed new home 10 minutes drive from town."Paul McDougall moved with his partner, Tanya Koenig, to Ballarat 10 years ago and says he's always surprised Ballarat isn't more in demand. "You can get an amazing house here for so much less than in Melbourne. There's plenty of work here and even if you commute to Melbourne it's a very pleasant one-hour train journey or drive down the freeway."The couple moved to Ballarat when they decided to start a family, and knew they'd need to upgrade from their one-bedroom unit in Williamstown. On average incomes, they would have had to move deep into Melbourne's suburbs to be able to afford a family home. He had grown up near Maryborough before going to work in Melbourne and then travelling for some time overseas, where he had met Ms Koenig in Canada."I knew we'd be able to buy a nice house in Ballarat for a fraction of the price of Melbourne. But I wasn't sure how Tanya would go with that," he says. "She had been living in Toronto, which is a pretty cosmopolitan city, and she was unsure whether regional life would do it for her. She wanted to live somewhere that had a bit of life, a bit of an arts scene and restaurants. And after living in Melbourne for a while and travelling overseas I was a bit nervous too."But they haven't looked back. Selling their unit in Williamstown for $200,000, they spent just $100,000 on a large three-bedroom house on a big block in the university suburb of St Helens, where they are raising their two boys. Ms Koenig works as a teacher in a nearby school, Mr McDougall works in disability services with Ballarat Health, and life, according to Mr McDougall, is stress-free. "We've got everything we need here. There are cafes, and there is a healthy arts scene. Plus we're close to the university and 10 minutes easy drive to the CBD, and the kids can walk to their school (Buninyong Primary)," he says. The house would be worth around $300,000 now a fraction of the cost of a comparable place in Melbourne.Encouraging others to make the move to Ballarat is Jeff Pulford, the director of growth and economy at Ballarat City Council. Ballarat is actively promoting the city's attractions to would-be immigrants including a program to welcome newcomers with a package of free services and new resident functions.Himself a recent arrival from Melbourne, Mr Pulford says the city has a lot to offer in terms of lifestyle especially to refugees from Melbourne. "We think Ballarat, more than any other regional city in Victoria has capital-city style, which makes it attractive to a wide range of residents. We've got art galleries, a pretty vibrant restaurant scene, great education, plenty of sport."Ballarat also has an unusually diversified economic base for a regional centre, which makes local employment a real prospect. Industry is fairly evenly divided between manufacturing, health services, tourism, education and retail.A technology park has IBM as its anchor tenant and employs hundreds in small to medium IT businesses. There's also a booming professional services sector catering to the needs of the 400,000 people in the Central Highlands regional catchment.Education is another of Ballarat's big attractions, Mr Pulford points out. Ballarat has among the state's top private schools in Ballarat Grammar, Clarendon College and St Patrick's Catholic School; it also has the University of Ballarat, plus local campuses of Australian Catholic University, Melbourne University and Deakin University.For Nigel and Denise Fitzpatrick, schooling was one of the big drawcards for their move to Ballarat in 2003. The couple had been living in inner Melbourne suburbs and realised that buying in Ballarat would mean they could afford to send their three children to Ballarat Grammar."Once you sell a house in Melbourne, what you can get here with that money is just fantastic," Mrs Fitzpatrick says.The couple bought a big family house in Black Hill, just a couple of kilometres north of the inner city. The house is directly opposite the well-regarded Black Hill Primary School, and when the time comes for the eldest to start high school, Ballarat Grammar is a bike or short bus ride away. "The thing is there is no traffic here, and the kids can get around so easily."Originally planning to commute to Melbourne, Mrs Fitzpatrick, a critical care nurse, easily found herself a position with Ballarat Health Services, while Mr Fitzpatrick works from home as a business analyst with IbisWorld."I've actually found that working here has given my career more scope than in Melbourne because the hospital serves a big regional area and I've been able to expand my horizons," Mrs Fitzpatrick says.But lifestyle was an issue as well. "We wanted somewhere that felt like there was a bit happening," she says. "There's plenty happening in Ballarat and we find we get into Melbourne more to see shows and go out than we did when we lived there."Golden opportunities: city living at country pricesPRICIEST SUBURBLake Wendouree (pictured):grand Victorian homes onwide, leafy streets surroundingthe wetlands and parklandsof Lake Wendouree.Prices around $1 millionBEST PICKSAccording to agent AlexCampbell, anywhere in the fiveto six blocks north and south ofSturt Street, west to Alfredtonand east to Black Hill andBrown Hill.There are some very nicepockets in this area, especially close to the health services,where you can pick up arenovated three-bedroom,two-bathroom home for$400,000-$500,000. He alsoexpects Newington to go aheadin leaps and bounds in the nextfew years.