In the theatre of the hard sell – real estate in the bubble

Richard Hil

Have you noticed how real estate agents have taken to sending out lengthy missives on all things apart from real estate? I’ve just received one via email. It’s full of recipes, gardening tips, exercise regimes, and commentary on the climate emergency. I was also invited to click on a video ‘wrap up’ of the current state of the property market and a story about a commendable bloke strongly opposed to shark nets.

Is it just me, or do you get irked by this sort of attempted ingratiation? After all, if I’m about to buy some fish and chips I don’t expect to receive a homily on Pope Francis’s episcopal or how to tip prune late-winter flowering shrubs. Welcome though such information might be – no doubt lubricating the conversational wheels – they can also feel out of place, unnecessary props in the theatre of the hard sell.

It’s like when someone is trying to sell you a house that you know you can’t afford and you get festooned with visions of renovated splendour – never mind that the cost of fixing up your pricey dump would plunge you into intergenerational poverty.

So, what’s going on here in the brave new world of real estate? Are the missives a symptom of desperation, or simply a clever ploy at relationship building? Maybe real estate agents are just nice people, who knows? I like the ones I’m dealing with.

But the world has changed. Thanks to COVID-19, the property market is in a dithery state right now, with some inner-city residences plummeting in value. On the other hand, the Byron Shire property market is like the Wild West, with prospective buyers obsessively surveying websites for that elusive bargain. The problem is that there aren’t many bargains to be had. Everything is being snapped up. Houses that would normally attract the attentions of a wrecking ball are being sold for ludicrous amounts. Anything with a roof is being flogged off, most often to big smoke fossickers. I’m told that the market is ‘spiking’ which is code for mayhem.

Time to get me a fixer-upper…

Get me a fixer-upper

My modest little weatherboard (or what my mum would refer to as a shed) has been the subject of this madness too. I was receiving offers that made my head spin. I could feel the ruthless capitalist instinct stirring within. The hidden hand of the market was having its way with me. But I’m not the only one. Perfectly sensible and committed progressives suddenly abandon all principle as they bludgeon competitors for that fixer upper. Previous reticence around financial matters is swept aside by boastful claims of huge profits derived from an ‘astute’ sale or purchase. Howls of joy can be heard as the corks are popped – it’s wild stuff. Few of us – at least those ‘in’ the market – are immune from such lapses, but I welcome being jolted back to a state of semi-decency by friends who can barely pay their rent.

The affordability joke

Getting into the market is hard – just ask young people, the marginalised, the precariat, etc. While some of us relish our good fortune, or take on the burden of debt enslavement, the housing precariat don’t even get a look in. Many young people have been exiled forever. Even if they can borrow from mum and dad to scrape together a deposit, the offerings in Legoland are meagre. The tiniest ticky-tacky boxes in Sydney or Melbourne are inordinately exsy. And as for Byron Bay, forget it. Let’s face it, what passes for ‘affordable’ these days is a sick joke – Byron/Mullum, anywhere in the Shire, included. Those diminutive abodes crammed into residential blocks will set you back half a million or more. It’s a return to the long-standing tradition of housing lesser mortals into tiny spaces, as opposed to the rich folks who, of course, require vast estates to accommodate their inflated egos. I witnessed this phenomenon when, as a kid, I’d walk past working-class houses where the front door led straight onto the street – no sign of defensible space there! Why is it, I’d wonder, that poor people only live in tiny cubes? It took sociology 101 to sort that one out.

But back to me-in-Mullum. Like countless others I traverse and Domain in search of something remotely affordable. There’s not much out there these days other than brick and tiles on the floodplain. The middle classes have already fled to the hills, spooked by floods, and the rest of us are kinda stuck. I’m really not complaining, but it does seem odd to be relatively cashed up and stranded because house prices have gone stratospheric. I’m a superannuated retiree who, in purchasing a property in Mullum a few years back, has done rather well – on paper at least. But I have contributed to the current housing affordability fiasco by being prepared to pay the asking price for what was then a dilapidated wooden bunker. When I put this proposition – that it’s not just negative gearing and Howard’s fiscal policies that are to blame for high housing prices – my cashed-up friends respond with horror, accusing me of analytical idiocy.

I suppose, to some extent, it all comes down to how the almighty dollar shapes our choices; for the cashed-up it’s getting that view, for the precariat it’s a roof. So rather than being groomed by real estate agents, I’d like to know how we can make our domiciliary nests truly affordable, how we can lower house prices, stop the colonising influence of Airbnb and backyard granny flats, and invest massively in more social housing. The market is us; there’s nothing hidden about it. Give the market enough rope and it’ll hang us all – apart from the rich, of course.

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