by Guy Lerner

I live in a little sleeper town in Australia called Sydney. At least, that’s what it was a few short decades ago. Today it’s considered one of the world’s fastest-growing conglomerations of human wealth.

Citizen’s Revolt
The transformation, for most Sydneysiders, has been remarkable, but then again, they only need look at themselves to know how they got their city in this big old mess in the first place. Like rabid dogs to a helpless rabbit, they’ve attacked the precious foreshores of their famous harbor with such vigor that the fact that anything is left at all for Joe Public to enjoy is a small miracle in itself.

No, I’m not talking about wanton destruction, simply a civilized flash of the wallet that’s bought up every square yard of buyable property, so that in reality the majority of Sydneysiders now live closer to neighboring towns than their own CBD.

If you ever needed confirmation that Sydney’s gone stark-raving mad, just pick up a local paper and run your finger through the headlines for the word “property.” It should take about three seconds for the first instance to come up, and about three hours by the time you’ve ticked off the others. Then turn to page two and carry on…

Boom, Boom, Boom
Sydney – like most of the “world cities” on the map, or so I’m told – is in the throes of a property boom that’s seen median house prices shoot up by more than 20% in the last year alone. Everywhere you look investors are locked in a feeding frenzy over scraps of land, however miniscule, old, barren or dilapidated, as long as they’re within the confines of the so-called metropolis – which, you’ll be glad to know, stretches for 150km north to south. (It would stretch a similar distance east to west if it weren’t for the unfortunate geographic oddity of the Blue Mountains in the way).

Of course this is great news if you happen to have inherited a house from grandma Ruth in affluent Bondi, which looks like a third-world shack but is worth more than a third-world country. For mere mortals, however, it’s nothing short of frustrating.

The sad part of this really sad story is that property fever has gripped the “Aussie” psyche by the unmentionables. Turn on any of the three main network channels on public TV (Seven, Nine and 10) at prime time and you won’t find the typical mix of cop shows, reality TV or courtroom dramas. Instead you’ll get a choice of three locally produced and acted actuality shows on…you guessed it…property!

I kid you not. Take your pick from Ground Force (a renovation program) to Hot Property (an auction program) and The Block (a fusion reality show where couples play against each other to renovate a Bondi apartment). Then there’s Burke’s Back Yard and Backyard Blitz, Renovation Rescue, and even – I swear this is true- a show that features the casts from all the major DIY and renovation shows working together to fix up a dump so the owners can flog it to some unsuspecting or uncannily naive sod for a perfectly illogical profit!

Did I mention Changing Rooms, Our House, Location Location, Room for Improvement, and Auction Squad? Sorry, must have missed those last night.

Show Business
The irony is that all of this is sold Sydney’s willful inhabitants as “entertainment”. This is supposed to be what ordinary Aussies do for “fun.” We bite our nails and cover our eyes as some fool from Wagga Wagga manages to offload a hardly-habitable semi he bought for $50,000 two years ago for ten times that at auction because it happens to be where the yuppies are biting.

It’s gone so loony that the most popular way of buying property in this city is – as you must have picked up by now – on auction! You’d think normal people would be bidding the price of a property down, not up.

I was reading the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday when an article caught my eye (it didn’t hurt). The headline splashed: “Thanks a million – but I really need 10.”

More good news, woo-hoo! It continued:

“A million dollars will not necessarily make you feel like a millionaire any more. In some parts of Sydney it could be just enough to pay off the mortgage and renovate your kitchen. Which explains why Sydneysiders are more likely than country dwellers to opt for long-odds, big-win lottery options such as Powerball.”

(Powerball – for the non-Sydneysiders among you – is the Big Kahuna of state lotteries. This weekend’s prize tops $19 million).

The article goes on to explain why more and more people living in Sydney are choosing the statistically impossible odds of the state lotteries over the already impossible odds of smaller scratch-type jackpots (that max out at a paltry $1,000,000) because they want to live near enough to city to avoid the two hour bus commute to work. (Just the fact that you still have to work with a million bucks in your pocket should tell you where this is going).

“Last week NSW Lotteries paid out nearly $30 million to two players: a sales manager in his 40s from Sydney won $13.7 million, and a retired woman from Wagga Wagga won $15 million. The Sydney man plans to buy a waterfront property. The Wagga woman will donate money to disadvantaged youngsters and pay off her childrens’ homes.”

Believe me when I tell you this is one crazy town.