Oxford to Oz: House Hunting, Part 1

White paneled Australian bungalow with green accents, and a large brick chimney stack.

How to find and rent a house in Melboure

The prospect of looking for a house in a new country on the other side of the world filled me with a strange mixture of dread and excitement. I was looking at houses months in advance to try to get some idea of the market. I had heard lots of horror stories about how competitive renting a house is in Melbourne. Coming from the least affordable city in the UK, I thought that it probably couldn’t be much worse. Thankfully my suspicions were correct, and renting a house in Australia proved to be much more straightforward than I had feared.

Now that I’m happily settled in my new home, I thought it was time for me to share some tips and ideas I picked up in my few weeks of speedy house hunting. The main takeaway is not to worry; it’s much less stressful than you might think! For more in-depth thoughts, read on.

Where to look

One of my first big questions in the house hunting process was ‘what are their versions of Zoopla and RightMove?’ Back home in the UK I’d found pretty much all of my houses (I’ve moved a depressingly large number of times in the past few years) through one or the other of these two sites. As far as I can tell the main equivalents in Australia are Domain and RealEstate. Both of them sound more geared up for buying than renting, but they have a wide selection of rentals too. In our area we found pretty much all the local estate agents used RealEstate. There is an app, and if you make an account you can get alerts on specific searches, and save houses you’re interested in. Lots of agents will let you sign-up for viewings, and even log your applications, through these apps too. There are lots of search filters so you can specify exactly what you’re looking for, and your budget. You can also check out the websites of national estate agents like Ray White, which have offices pretty much everywhere.

Do your research

This is much as it would be at home. The apps have lots of extra information, like advice on local schools, but it’s still a good idea to cross reference against as many resources as possible. What neighbourhood you choose can make a big difference to what amenities you’ll have access to, how far your budget will go, and so on.

We were fairly tied to a few particular neighbourhoods on account of my partner’s job, but we still took time to get to know each of them. Take a look at Google directions to see how long it’ll take you to get to things that are important to you, be it work, the museums, or the shops (a good hairdresser is a good one, as these are not always easy to find!). Take a look on Deliveroo, UberEats or DoorDash to see what restaurants and take-out options you have nearby. If takeout is a regular treat, you want to make sure you’ll have some favourites in the area. If brunch is your thing, can you find anywhere local (within Sunday strolling distance) that would suit? If you use a gym, is there one close enough that you won’t use travel time as an excuse not to go? These are all little things separate to the house itself that can make a huge difference to your general quality of life.

If you can, give yourself some time to actually walk around the neighbourhoods in question. Great though Google Streetview can be, it won’t give you much of the ‘vibe’ of a neighbourhood or town. Walking around at a time of day when people are actually home will give you a sense of what it feels like as a lived place.

In terms of budget, there is obviously a huge difference between areas. As with cities all over the world, you’ll pay a premium if you want to live close to the centre. Slightly confusingly Australian rental prices are listed per week (which only really happens with really expensive houses in the UK). Often jobs pay on a fortnightly basis, and you’ll actually pay rent on a monthly basis, so it’s all a bit muddled. If you’re looking to pay the equivalent of your UK rent, bear this in mind when doing your calculations.

Types of House

Multi-level house with green timbers, red brick lower floor and white pebble-dashed upper.

There are a few different kind of house I’ve come across so far in Australia. I’m in Melbourne, so I’m sure it varies in other parts of the country. First is the classic Australian bungalow. These are often made of wood, with big windows and large footprints, real fires, and huge plots. Then there are the ‘townhouses‘, which basically seems to be the name for buildings of a similar date to the bungalows, but with multiple levels. There are some really charming examples of these in places like Richmond. The closer to the centre you are, the more apartment buildings you’ll find. There are some big, modern ones out in the suburbs, but, as you’d expect, they’re a little cramped. If you’re into apartment living, going all in on a tiny but well-located skyscraper apartment in the city, somewhere like South Yarra, would probably be your best bet (and set you back a similar amount to a three or four bedroom house further out).

Finally, you have the modern house, usually a ‘unit‘, built in threes or more on plots once occupied by a single bungalow. This is what I ended up choosing. The bungalows are really charming, but if you’re looking for modern conveniences like multiple bathrooms, built-in cookers, and reliable air conditioning, a unit seems to be a safer bet. ‘Unit’ sounds as if it’ll be similar to a maisonette, but as far as I’ve seen they’ve all been standalone houses, with a bit of garden and a garage, or very semi-detached, with something like the garage wall linking with the next unit. I was drawn to the big spaces, wooden floors, and period features of the bungalow, but now we’ve been here for a while, I’m glad we went for a unit. One other aspect that probably shouldn’t have carried much weight was that modern buildings are much better sealed from the outside than the airy, creaky bungalows, so we felt the chances of little bugs and beasties getting in was smaller! So far, so good on that front, but we’ll have to wait and see what the depths of autumn bring.

Differences to British houses

One major difference between Australian and British homes is the heating systems. They don’t really seem to have radiators here; you’ll either have ducted heating, which is a bit like a modern hypercaust, or dual air con. We’ve got the latter, which seems to be doing the job so far. It’s a bit less efficient than our central heating back in the UK, but as it uses electricity, and we have a green energy supplier, it’s probably a price worth paying.

Related to heating is the fact that, bizarrely, double glazing doesn’t seem to be very common here. It’s very nerdy, but I’d quite like to read a history of Australian building codes – there are probably some interesting socio-historical reasons why double glazing hasn’t caught on yet.

A final thing I just have to mention about Australian houses is the built-in vacuum cleaners. Honestly they seem so odd, but are actually kind of amazing. I gather they’re pretty normal in modern Australian houses (and globally), but I have certainly never seen them in the UK. Your house comes with an ungodly length of tubing, complete with the usual vacuum cleaner tools, and an upstairs and downstairs plug in the wall. These are connected to the actual vacuum, in the garage. Simply plug the tube in and it switches on. It’s nowhere near as powerful as the Dyson we had at home, but it seems to do the job, and as it has a huge bucket receptacle, it runs for ages before you need to empty it. Not bad really! I probably shouldn’t get so excited about something so incredibly banal, but in a funny sort of way it really drove home that we had left the UK far behind.

That’s it for part one! I hope this has given you some good ideas for what to look out for when house hunting in Australia, and some of the differences to finding a home in the UK. Check out Part Two for information on open houses, and putting in an application!

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