FROM NORTHCOTE TO CASTLEMAINE: A SEARCH FOR PROPERTY GOLD
By Bergen O’Brien
“Gradually word filtered through to the disenchanted… that something promising was afoot at Mount Alexander.” Robyn Annear Nothing but GOLD – The Diggers of 1852
In 2010, my partner Claudia and I packed our family’s belongings into the wagon and migrated from Northcote to Castlemaine with Joe, our one-year-old son.
It was only after I became a Castlemaine “local” – a disputed term for anyone born outside of the town – that I became aware of a more modern influx of migrants from Melbourne’s Inner North. The Melbourne to Castlemaine migration has not been stronger since the gold rush 150 years ago when hundreds of thousands of prospectors made their way up Mt Alexander Road in search of riches.
OUT OF NORTHCOTE
During the few years before our move, Northcote rents had risen beyond credulity and landlords were happy to move renters along, knowing new tenants would inevitably take their place. Though our Greek-Cypriot landlord had only marginally increased the rent in the five years we lived there, the low price did not include much-needed structural repair. As I was “like family”, this meant I had to fix things myself.
While insulated from surrounding price hikes, we were less insulated from cold winter weather and summer heat waves. And oh, how a child can change the equation! When the landlord decided to raise the rent in keeping with the neighbourhood, we knew it was time to move on.
In addition to our housing strains, Peter Costello’s ‘one for the country,’ arrived in a great suckling and crying tide. As they began teething and waddling, a quick look around revealed a severe lack of childcare places available in the inner-northern suburbs of Melbourne. By the time we tried to find a place for our toddler Joe, we were at around #400 on the waiting list!
According to the Bureau of Statistics figures, Melbourne’s population is expected to double by 2053. A storm of circumstances drives demand in the inner suburbs and the congested roads and poor public transport, makes outer suburb commuting less attractive. In the well-catered inner core, traditional student and share houses are becoming family homes and many large housing blocks and old warehouses are being replaced by apartment blocks.
If the rents seemed high back then, I’m lost for words now. Fitzroy leads a current rental price boom, which has seen the median rent rising 24% in a single year. I can’t begin to imagine who can afford those rents.
According to Urban Melbourne (a group that encourages urban rather than suburban development), medium and high-density developments are a necessary and desirable ingredient for Melbourne’s future population requirements. Though they do create more dwellings, many people pine for a bit more space and a yard to kick around in. The bottom line is this: there are too few properties with too large a price tag for most people who dream of a backyard to laze in over the summer.
With these patterns already firmly entrenched in 2010, our options were limited. We could either find a shonky house with no long-term lease or be satisfied with a much smaller house, meaning we would have to kiss the kitchen garden, veggie patch, and chickens goodbye.
Alternatively, we could move further north to Preston or Coburg, or keep heading further till we moved right out of town. We chose the latter, and jumped right into searching in earnest for places to buy in Castlemaine where the prospect seemed possible.
ONWARD TO CASTLEMAINE
Unbeknown to us, we were exactly part of the trend that Marika Dobbins had written about in 2009 for the Herald Sun, titled: “Castlemaine becomes Northcote North…” The article analysed 2006 census data that showed that the majority of new residents to Castlemaine hailed from the Darebin Council area.
We soon learnt that even in Castlemaine, after 10 years of speculative opportunism and buyer demand, housing prices had risen too. Unable to find a place to buy, we decided to test the waters for a rental far grander than we could have ever afforded in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. The 2011 census data showed that the trend continues. Castlemaine remains a “next stop after Northcote” along the great hipster migration line.
Like so many others who have made Castlemaine their home in the last 150 years, my family’s relocation was partly economical, but the gold Castlemaine promised in 2010 was different to the mineral wealth of 1852. The first gold nugget we stumbled over was a childcare place becoming available within a few weeks. There is also colour in the cohesive community culture. People stop and chat on the street, seemingly unfussed and unhurried. The waft of coffee is sufficiently thick in the cold morning air to reassure the status-updating hipsters that the town roasts and boasts a cosmopolitan drop.
A LASTING TREND?
Brunswick residents, Anastasia and her partner, are also potential future migrants from the Inner North. She has always been interested in moving to the country and with the continuing housing pressures, Castlemaine beckons.
“We’d like to own our own house, but with the prices around here that’s not going to happen in Brunswick. We’re not really interested in living in the outer suburbs where the commute to work can be more than an hour. So it’s either move further into the CBD or go somewhere else.” Said Anastasia.
With Castlemaine now in their sights, they have been making regular trips up to look at properties for sale.
However, there is a paradox in this continuing flow of people fleeing the gentrification of the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Castlemaine is experiencing its own gentrification.
Housing prices in Castlemaine, while more stable than Melbourne, already have niche market pricing. Anecdotally, “weekenders” are absorbing some of the available housing. In addition to these strains, local employment opportunities are limited and current house prices require a high paying job. It is tolerably commuter-friendly to Melbourne, but only if current housing prices stay the same.
Another internal migration measure from the 2011 Census gives a surprising result. For every two people who leave Northcote for Castlemaine, another returns to Northcote. They are seemingly and inextricably sister sites. They remain mutually porous.
Until last year, Cath Hope had a foot in both camps. She was living in Northcote with a weekender in Castlemaine. Attracted by its country air, natural beauty and city-like culture, she bought her Castlemaine place in 2001 and moved in full time in 2012. After two years of country life, Northcote called her back.
“It was closer to family and I wanted a lot more stimulation. Castlemaine wasn’t enough.” She decided to get a taste of the autumnal air and house swap over Easter. When she posted on Castlemainia, a Facebook page that usually sports inner-community day-to-day fare, there was a ready supply of residents itching for a reminder of the city life.
Of course, people are still prospecting the hillsides and gullies with metal detectors in the hope of landing a real chunk of gold – I confess to being one also – but mostly it’s Castlemaine’s ‘not-too-country’ lifestyle that remains the real draw.