Alicia Jenner hasn’t looked back since swapping Sydney for the smaller city of Wollongong three years ago.
Despite her now three-hour return commute to Barangaroo for her job with BT Financial Group, the mother-of-two has no plans to move back to Sydney.
“The Illawarra has an amazing family atmosphere, with lovely parks and picnic areas, bike parks, beaches and more and still has reasonably affordable real estate,” she says. “We wouldn’t live anywhere else now.”
Having lived in western and northern Sydney, Alicia and her husband Steve shifted to Bulli following two stints on the Central Coast.
“When we looked to buy in Sydney, the best we could get was a very small three-bedroom 50-year-old fibro house in Engadine for $650,000, we bought a lovely two-storey house in Bulli with a separate pool house and amazing views for $615,000 for only another 25 minute commute.”
The couple spend three hours commuting to and from work in the Sydney CBD. Both drive to Waterfall station and get the train from there.
“I always look for work locally but to be honest the money is in the city,” Alicia says. “I plan to commute for the foreseeable future … it means dropping the kids off at 7am, so it’s tough sometimes, but we make it work. I currently work from home on Fridays … which just gives me a break.”
It was a similar story for childcare worker Bree Teal and her partner Michael Jarrett, a tyre fitter, who swapped apartment living in Sydney for a home in Unanderra two years ago.
While Bree found local work, Michael commutes to Waterloo six days a week on the train.
“We were in an older style two-bedroom unit and needed more space when we had our daughter,” Bree says. “We looked at the house and rent prices in Wollongong and it was much more reasonable.
“We’re now renting a newly renovated, three-bedroom house with a large yard for the same price we were paying for an old run-down unit in Randwick.”
In 2011, about 20,000 people who lived in the Wollongong Local Government Area (LGA) travelled to Sydney for work. This number has only increased.
“It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen over the last 10 to 15 years,” says Wollongong City Council’s economic development manager Mark Grimson.
Data from Transport for NSW shows there has been almost a 25 per cent increase in people catching the train into the Sydney CBD over the last five years.
While 969 people on average commuted there from Wollongong on weekdays in 2011,there are now 1206 people who catch the train into the Sydney CBD. An additional 1207 people, on average, also commute to greater Sydney.
“When you’re looking at affordability, if your mortgage is a few hundred thousand dollars less (because you live in Wollongong), you’re not going to mind paying $50 a week extra for public transport or fuel,” Grimson says.
“Wollongong offers a northern beaches or eastern suburbs lifestyle at a fraction of the cost. People are saying ‘do I live in Wollongong where I’m less than five minutes from the beach, or do I spend the same to buy in Penrith or Blacktown’.”
Wollongong has a median house price of $649,000, up 10 per cent on 2015, but still well below Sydney’s record median of $1,068,303. Its median unit price is $505,000, up 17.5 per cent on last year, compared with Sydney’s median of $685,865.
Domain Group’s chief economist Dr Andrew Wilson says the hot Sydney market has been pushing priced out buyers to Wollongong.
“It’s one of the strongest, if not the strongest, regional market in the country at the moment, it’s growing stronger than the Sydney market … I expect the median will be over $650,000 by the end of .”
Wilson says while there were concerns over the number of units being built several years ago, demand is outstripping supply, leading to very strong apartment sales.
“It’s also done a great turn-around economically. Three or four years ago, there were a lot of concerns when they lost their steel manufacturing base that had really solely supported the economy for some time … but Wollongong is firing on all cylinders, and a lot of its economic success is coming from construction.”
Grimson says: “There’s no doubt Wollongong and the region’s economy has diversified greatly over the last decade. The steelworks in the last couple of years has gone through further reforms and reduced its workforce further, but the reality is there are a lot of other new industries that are growing.”
He identifies health and aged care, shared services, professional services and tourism as growing sectors, and says $1.3 billion has been invested in the city centre over the past four years, with a further $300 million in the pipeline.
“Due to the substantial development, the CBD population will increase by about 150 per cent over the next three years or so. The inner city is really taking off, 60 new cafes and small bars have been set up in the last three years, it’s becoming a highly desirable place to live.”
Grimson says the big focus moving forward for the city is attracting businesses to the area, via the lower business operating costs and the untapped potential of 20,000-plus people commuting to Sydney every day.