The great escape from Auckland

Thousands of Aucklanders are fleeing the big city to escape stress, prohibitive living costs and crazy traffic to create a slower-paced, debt-free life in the provinces. Paulette Crowley spoke to a few people who’ve made the move.

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Auckland escapees Fiona Fraser, son Salvador, husband Scott Towers and their beloved dog, Ellie, are now proud owners of a lifestyle block in Havelock North.

Searching for life in a smaller community had always been on the agenda for magazine editor Fiona Fraser, 42, and her musician husband Scott Towers, 44. Arriving back from their OE in 2004, the couple settled in west Auckland, where they bought a three-bedroom home and had their son, Salvador, now aged nine.

“We loved Auckland, especially for the first five or six years,” Fraser says. “We really enjoyed ourselves.”

But Fraser’s demanding job with long hours often meant not getting home until 7.30pm, impacting on family time. “My boy was growing up so quickly… I knew it would only be another 10 years until we would say goodbye to him, and I would have spent most of his life in an office.”

Space was also an issue. Their home had become too small, and they craved a lifestyle block where they could have animals.

The couple had eyed up Havelock North in the Hawke’s Bay as a possibility, having fallen in love with the region while holidaying there. “Every time we’d been in Hawke’s Bay, we’d always wondered what it would be like to live there but I’d always pooh-poohed the idea. It was such an enormous concept and as far as I could see, there wasn’t any work for me.”

Like so Aucklanders fed up with crazy property prices, long commutes and pressure, they longingly perused house listings in provincial centres and imagined what their Auckland money could buy, and what lifestyle they could achieve.

And then they became paid-up members of the ex-Aucklanders club.

Bye, Auckland

In May 2016, Fraser landed a job leading the communications and marketing team at the Napier City Council. With Towers only needing a handy airport to travel overseas for his job as a saxophone player in Fat Freddy’s Drop, the pair sold up in west Auckland and bought a lifestyle block in Havelock North.

The 2 acre (0.8ha) property, which takes in views from (to) the Ruahine Range and landmark Te Mata Peak, easily eclipses their previous 800m2 section. “Our 100m2 outhouse here, which we eventually want to turn into accommodation, is bigger than our entire house in Auckland,” Fraser says. “We’re in a beautiful location. I look out the window every day and cannot believe the sheer beauty of the region I live – it’s incredible to me. I have to shake myself.”

Their son has settled in well at school and the family is kept busy exercising their new dog every weekend and attending lots of social activities. “We had a ‘Say yes to everything’ policy for the first six months, even if it wasn’t something we’d normally do in Auckland. We’ve really made the most of every opportunity being given to us, just to get out there and make friends.”

Finishing work at 5pm and enjoying the laid-back pace of a semi-rural lifestyle pace are changes cherished by the family.

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The living is easy in the Hawke’s Bay: Fiona and Salvador at Ocean Beach.                          Photo: Kirsten Simcox

“There’s a beautiful simplicity in our lives now. It’s a huge relief after the frantic lives that we were leading in Auckland.”

Some say the local community is cliquey but Fraser disagrees. “The only thing is in the real estate market. I understand some local families are struggling to get into houses because of Aucklanders coming in with a lot of cash in their pockets. I feel that could potentially become a problem, but we haven’t seen any negativity towards us.”

Napier mayor Bill Dalton agrees the local housing market is “very strong” with many Aucklanders snapping up homes in the $300-400,000 bracket sight unseen. The Council, the biggest property developer in the region, is about to release titles for 200 sections, and they already have 100 names on their waiting list.

Families and retirees from Auckland settling in the region is good for the economy, but he acknowledges it has resulted in pressure on local first-home buyers. “There’s no question about that. But there are still parts of Napier where you can get cheap do-ups and make a profit once they’re renovated.”

Extra bodies, especially during community events and festivals, are noticeable but there’s more than enough room for everyone. Dalton’s message is to come on over.

“We’ve got everything people like about Auckland but we don’t have the things that people don’t like about a big city. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Not all good news for the regions

Not everyone is singing the praises of new arrivals, however. Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless is all for population growth, as long as people buying property in his city are making a contribution.

“I don’t mind anybody coming here, as long as they become part of the community and contribute by setting up businesses and things like that. The thought of people coming here because somewhere else is bad doesn’t enthral me. They need to think of the place as home, and not just a place to escape to.”

Specifically, he’s talking about Aucklanders buying up properties as investments because of higher rental yields, which only serves to drive up real estate prices and lock locals out of the market. “It’s not real economic growth and it’s not sustainable.”

Pressure on infrastructure and services is also making its presence felt, he says. “Auckland people tell us the traffic isn’t busy, but we think it is.”

Schools are also growing rapidly, with some running out of classroom space. Residential and commercial building is also on the rise. “The city is definitely spreading out, and it’s probably going to grow up a little bit, as well.”

Whether the growth fuelled by the Auckland exodus will continue in Tauranga remains to be seen. “Things go in cycles. You only have to cast your mind back to 2008 or so – we were in the doldrums here.”

Dream or desperation?

The reality is, escaping from Auckland for an easier life in the regions is not just a flight of fancy but a necessity for many people becoming fed up struggling to pay sky-high prices for housing, enduring ever-worsening traffic and fighting to keep up with an increasingly hectic pace of life.

It’s just too hard

“It feels like our backs are up against the wall. We just can’t survive here any more,” says one born and bred North Shore-ite, who’s keen on making a move to Dunedin. “We have a house, two kids and both work at pretty decent jobs. But we’re broke, demoralised and over spending all our time in traffic and none with our kids. It’s getting harder and harder. We’ll be off down south as soon as we can get work.”

For those who are not in the fortunate position of owning property in the Super City, the picture is even more grim. If you can’t afford the extravagant price tags on houses – even a decidedly average Auckland house can cost you upwards of $1 million – soaring rental costs of often substandard and limited rental stock is the norm.

“Regions ranked by household income show that Auckland is number one, but is the lowest on the scale for disposable income,” economist Shamubeel Eaqub says. “After you’ve taken into consideration the cost of living, you’re actually much worse off living in Auckland at the moment.”

Not everyone can escape the rat race, Equab says. Though being cashed-up from selling property in Auckland is undoubtedly a great start to making a move, securing a job in your chosen career with good income and prospects of promotion is not so simple.

“And once you’re out of Auckland, you [might] have to think about children’s education and healthcare.”

Far from being unavailable or substandard, specialised healthcare and education in their new hometown of Taupo was far superior to what was available in Auckland, says Darlesha Wrigley, 42. As a mum to an autistic child – one of four boys – this was an important factor in moving to the central North Island town in October 2015.

The changing Super City

A decade ago, their home in Riverhead, north-west of Auckland, was considered semi-rural, but has since evolved into another thriving suburb of the Super City. “It used to be so quiet, and we were tucked away from everything,” Wrigley says. “But it became busier and busier.”

Over the last decade she and husband Scott’s lives have changed dramatically with the arrival of their sons, now aged 10, 7, 6 and 3. With Wrigley no longer in the workforce, there was a huge strain on the already stretched family finances. “We found that ‘free early childcare’ was a joke as we were paying about $90 per week.”

Though the born-and-bred Auckland couple had never considered leaving the area, when Scott, 44, was made redundant just before Christmas a few years ago, moving to a more affordable part of the country became attractive.

In October 2015, Taupo became their destination of choice – “we had both always liked it” – and money from their Auckland house sale bought them a freehold home in an excellent school zone.

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Scott and Darlesha Wrigley with their four sons. Opportunities in the great outdoors of Taupo suit their active young family to a tee.

“Our house in Auckland was a rundown four-bedroom, one-bathroom, one-living area place on a main highway. We now have a tidy, low-maintenance, five-bedroom, two-bathroom home with two large living areas, three-car garaging in a quiet cul-de-sac, with lake views.”

The couple also had enough money left from selling their house to start a business. “We are miles better off and I can’t see us ever wanting to leave here,” Wrigley says.

Money to spare

Being debt-free is also a big drawcard for Aucklanders. For many with low or paid-off mortgages, the lure of selling up and becoming debt-free with money to spare is strong, especially for those with kids who’ve left home and who are approaching retirement.

For these reasons and more, former Waiheke Islanders Susan Harris, 50, and her partner Gary Fellowes, 53, made their home on 5 acres (2ha) in rural Bay of Plenty in February last year.

Despite Waiheke being a sought-after place to live, Harris and Fellowes joined many others in making the leap back to the mainland. “It was just so expensive to live there,” Harris, a health professional, says. “It was incredibly hard to find and keep a place to live, and the commute [to the CBD] was expensive and exhausting. I was earning better money than I ever had in my life in my job, but I had less money than ever.”

Waiheke wasn’t all bad though – it was a place for Harris to flee to and heal after the Christchurch earthquakes – and it was there that she met Fellowes, a born-and-bred Waiheke Islander who also dreamed of a more rural, easier life. Because they became freehold, the pair weren’t under pressure for income straight away, so Fellowes took 18 months off work to renovate a house they had moved onto the property, and to develop the land.

Harris initially struggled to find work in her specialised field but has since started a consultancy business. Fellowes eventually found work in a kiwifruit packhouse, and has since been promoted to a supervisor. The pay, he says, started on the low side: “I was working for $17 per hour in what would have been a $30 hour job in Auckland, but it’s all relative when your cost of living is low and you’re debt-free.”

Living in a remote location does have its challenges. With 34km to travel to Te Puke and 33km to Whakatane, grocery shopping is a closely-planned expedition, although the long distances don’t daunt the pair. “You go down the end of the [380m] driveway and turn left or right onto one of the best roads in the country in a 100km zone,” Fellowes says. “It’s a nice drive.”

Making new friends

Socially and culturally, things have been tricky. Making new friends hasn’t been a doddle for the “very social” Harris, but making sure they attend events and activities in surrounding centres has helped.

Living in a predominantly bicultural area too, has been an eye-opener for the pair. “Every time we’ve gone into Whakatane, we’ve really noticed the gang culture. Everyone’s patched up.” The couple have also noted a “big amphetamine problem” in the area.

Getting his hands on his beloved Indian cuisine has been a mission for Fellowes, although he has managed to procure some ingredients. Regular trips to Auckland, three-and-a-half hours’ drive away, however, has quelled the cravings for ethnic foods and provided his cafe culture fix.

They’re in the Bay of Plenty for the long haul, Fellowes says. “We’ve put a 40-foot container on the land for Susan’s [grown-up] kids to come and visit. And we’re out of the Auckland market, so there’s no going back. But we don’t care – we just love it here.”

The point of no return is also a happy place for Fiona Fraser. Tempting friends to make the move from Auckland is her new hobby (their spare room was booked up most of summer with city visitors).

“I have become a little bit evangelical and I do want to recruit all the time. I know there are people in Auckland sitting in their offices gazing out the window and wondering how the hell they’re going to get out one day.”

This article was first published in Your Weekend, March 4, 2017.

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