GOOD MOVE: Lenore Bower and Dean Parker relocated from Sydney to their new apartment in Islington as the impact of the pandemic took hold in March. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

GOOD MOVE: Lenore Bower and Dean Parker relocated from Sydney to their new apartment in Islington as the impact of the pandemic took hold in March. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

The tree-changers who escaped the big smoke in COVID-19 for new life in the Hunter

COVID-19 spreads desire for quieter, more affordable life in regional Australia

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When the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Hunter real estate agents feared no one would be looking for a new home, but instead it has prompted many people to rethink their lives - and to relocate from the big cities.

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WHEN Lenore Bower and Dean Parker decided to relocate from Sydney to Newcastle in March, a prime reason was for a change of lifestyle.

Little did the Lower North Shore couple know that everyone was about to experience a change of lifestyle, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"COVID hits, we were pre-exchange, and things were looking pretty bad," Lenore Bower said.

Her work as a yoga instructor and his as a television production editor began drying up, and they had poured their money into an Islington apartment.

"It was like , 'Ooh, what are we doing? Is this the right thing, or should we pull out?," she said.

Then, as "panic" set in with the pandemic and they were faced with empty supermarket shelves, the couple resolved to leave Sydney.

"We couldn't get out quick enough," Mr Parker said.

Both have found the atmosphere more relaxed in Newcastle, work is flowing again, with Mr Parker editing at home, and they are glad they didn't stay in Sydney.

"We would've bought somewhere we didn't really want to be, and we would have been stuck there, and we would have been working from home anyway," Ms Bower said. "So just we made the right decision at the very right moment."

Lenore Bower and Dean Parker in their new apartment in Islington. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Lenore Bower and Dean Parker in their new apartment in Islington. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

The pandemic has given many people time to reassess their lives. As a result, long-time Newcastle real estate agent Scott Walkom has noticed, Sydneysiders are heading north in search of a less congested and more affordable lifestyle. Novocastrians are also returning home, reconnecting with the city where they grew up.

"I'd say [COVID-19] may have accelerated a desire that was already there," Mr Walkom said.

City escapees are also heading into the country.

"I've never seen a market like it, it's bizarre. It's so fast," said Cain Beckett, a director at Jurds real estate agency in Cessnock.

"I don't stop answering inquiries from daylight to dark. At least 100 inquiries a day.

"The first two weeks of lockdown were desperately quiet, and after that was craziness."

Cain Beckett has sold 22 properties since March. He said traditionally buyers wanted weekenders, but at the moment, many were "permanent tree-changers".

Some were seeking to move out of densely populated areas. Others were seeking greater food security.

"They want to grow their own fruit and vegetables and not be dependent on an inner city lifestyle," Mr Beckett said. "But for the most part, it's 'space and lifestyle'."

BUSY: Jurds real estate agent Cain Beckett in his Cessnock office. Picture: Marina Neil

BUSY: Jurds real estate agent Cain Beckett in his Cessnock office. Picture: Marina Neil

Those qualities have won over Central Coast couple Mel and Yvonne Robbie. They are moving from their home close to the beach at Wamberal to a two-hectare property at Elrington, about 10 kilometres from Cessnock.

While Yvonne Robbie had yearned for years to have land for her ponies, what spurred her into action was COVID-19, which forced her to temporarily shut her hairdressing salon but gave her free time.

"I suppose I had time to be on Facebook, and the house came up on Facebook, and I said to my husband, 'Look! It's my dream home!'," Mrs Robbie explained.

Barely a week after seeing the property online, the Robbies had bought their new home for $1.215 million. The acreage offered everything they wanted, including something they had rediscovered during the pandemic: the joys of a slower life.

"We work so hard, and just having that break from the rat race, we thought, 'We could own that and be mortgage-free and almost semi-retire'," she said.

An hour's drive to the north-east in Dungog, Dee Braithwaite has been fielding a "high volume of inquiries".

"The inquiry levels, especially for rural properties, are exceptionally strong," Ms Braithwaite, from Ray White Rural Sydney/Dungog, said.

For two luxury properties, named Mazura and Slowdance, Ms Braithwaite has been receiving about 50 inquiries every day. About 70 per cent of the prospective buyers are from Sydney; the next largest group is Newcastle people.

TREE CHANGE: Dungog real estate agent Dee Braithwaite, at a property on the market, Slowdance, says city dwellers are seeking the "fresh country air". Picture: Supplied

TREE CHANGE: Dungog real estate agent Dee Braithwaite, at a property on the market, Slowdance, says city dwellers are seeking the "fresh country air". Picture: Supplied

A few months ago, she feared it would not be like this. After contending with tough times largely due to drought and bushfires, the Dungog agent hoped for a change of fortune.

"The market was lifting, confidence was back, and people were listing properties - and then COVID hit," she said.

But the pandemic also brought change she had not seen coming, with many city dwellers seeking "fresh country air".

"COVID has given people time to revisit what they want in life, and they've worked out they can work remotely," Dee Braithwaite said.

Cain Beckett said while a few buyers had asked about a "COVID price", the pandemic would have an effect in the region - but not in the way bargain seekers had hoped.

"It hasn't lifted prices yet, but it will," Mr Beckett said. "It's dramatically increased demand, but it hasn't increased supply."

Cain Beckett, from Jurds real estate agency, in Cessnock. Picture: Marina Neil

Cain Beckett, from Jurds real estate agency, in Cessnock. Picture: Marina Neil

Anthony Merlo, from Dalton Partners, worked with Lenore Bower and Dean Parker to secure their apartment. He said the pandemic had shown people their options.

If they were working from home, they didn't have to do it in Sydney while tied to a large mortgage.

"This has pushed people to realise what they can do when they're working from home," Mr Merlo said.

Three months on, with the boxes unpacked and their home taking shape, Dean Parker and Lenore Bower are delighted they have made the move to Newcastle.

"It's actually been the best move ever," said Mr Parker.

Dean Parker and Lenore Parker in their Islington apartment. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Dean Parker and Lenore Parker in their Islington apartment. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

The story The tree-changers who escaped the big smoke in COVID-19 for new life in the Hunter first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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