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There’s no let-up in the exodus as tree-changers continue to eye greener pastures, reports David Adams.

The quest for a more relaxed lifestyle in the wide outdoors continues to draw people out of Melbourne and into rural Victoria.

Since it was first identified as a trend in the late ’90s and early noughties, the tree-change phenomenon has continued to gather pace and while the global financial crisis has led to some slowing in numbers moving out to places further afield, leafy destinations in close proximity to the city remain popular among those looking to escape the rat race.

Bernard Salt, a KPMG property advisory services partner and author of The Big Shift, says many of the established tree-change destinations are continuing to gather momentum.

“If you look at the common denominators, these are places generally within an hour of the urban fringe, maybe two hours from Melbourne,” he says.

Popular tree-change destinations in Victoria — similar to those elsewhere in Australia — share a range of characteristics. “They are always green and pleasant and undulating — no one tree-changes to a dry, flat, wheatbelt town,” Mr Salt says. “They are always pretty places … and they often also have some sort of historical character. The absolute maraschino cherry on top is that there’s some sort of celebrity connection to the town, like Mel Gibson has a farm down the road.”

In Victoria, popular destinations for tree-changers continue to include areas such as Maldon, Creswick and Castlemaine in the Goldfields, as far north as Echuca on the Murray River and, to the north-east, communities such as Kilmore and Seymour, Alexandra and Walhalla.

South-east of Melbourne, destinations include a stretch from Pakenham to Drouin, while to the west, in-demand locations include Inverleigh and Bacchus Marsh, as well as Ceres and Bannockburn, which are just outside Geelong.

“Bannockburn is one that has gone gangbusters,” Mr Salt says.

Seka Powell, a director at ResCom in Bannockburn, says the company has just had the best three months she’s seen in a decade, fuelled by the opening of the Geelong bypass a couple of years ago, which has significantly cut travel times to Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge.

“[And] it’s just 15 minutes into Geelong and 40 minutes to Ballarat, or you can shoot over the ring road and get down to the coast very easily.”

One-acre (0.4 hectare) blocks are available for about $170,000, while half-acre (0.2 hectares) blocks are about $150,000. Established homes can go for anything from the low $300,000s up to the mid-$600,000s. “If you compare it to Geelong, you’re certainly getting more bang for your dollar, no doubt,” Ms Powell says.

While the tree-change movement was sparked by retirees, Mr Salt says the trend has moved beyond them.

“I think we’re now getting people aged in their late 30s, early 40s — Generation Xers — who just don’t buy into the inner-city lifestyle … and are prepared to make different choices.

“So, [it’s] a new, younger, generation of people who are prepared to trade down their high-flying job in the city and take something a little less well paid but trade up in the quality of the environment.”

Addressing the suggestion that a significant number of tree-changers have been moving back to the city, Mr Salt says that while it may be happening in certain cases, “for all the people coming back, there must be more people going in the other direction because the numbers keep growing every year”.

“The numbers in places such as Bannockburn, Daylesford, Echuca and the Goldfields just continue to grow.”

In Echuca — the closest Murray River community to Melbourne — Stephen Tonkin, a director of LJ Hooker, says the global financial crisis did have an effect on the number of tree-changers willing to buy at the higher end of the market ($500,000-plus).

But he adds that there remains a “good feed” of buyers from Melbourne. These include people who are buying lifestyle properties along the Murray River to live in immediately, as well as those who are buying low-maintenance properties to let to holidaymakers for a few years before moving in themselves after their retirement.

“I have sold a number of higher-end properties to people who intend to move here in about five years,” Mr Tonkin says.

LJ Hooker offices in northern Victoria recently launched an online magazine specifically aimed at selling to tree-changers.

Over in Daylesford, real estate agent John Evans says the relative affordability of properties and its close proximity to Melbourne remain key factors in drawing people to the area.

“You can buy a fairly substantial property here for the price of a terrace in Fitzroy … You can set yourself up in a pretty reasonable [three-bedroom] property here for the low to mid-$400,000s.”

Blocks of land are still selling for $130,000 to $140,000.

Mr Evans adds that the concept of telecommuting is helping to fuel demand from tree-changers.

“With the advances in technology helping them, they don’t really have to go into the office as much, do they?” he says.

“In the past, they used to call them ‘weekday widows’ — they’d shift to the country and dad would go back to the city to work Monday to Friday and come back on the weekends. But now mum or dad can stay — depending on who the working partner is — the whole week because they can work from home. I just think that opportunity is available to them more than it was a few years back.”

While it’s true most tree-changers move within an hour or two of the city, there are those who are attracted further afield. But Mark Norling, the principal at Elders in Bairnsdale, says there was certainly a marked downturn in the numbers making the move to inland locations around Bairnsdale and Sale when the global financial crisis hit. He adds that the tightening financial situation has seen some tree-changers forced to return to Melbourne in search of work.

That said, he says the company is still selling eight-hectare and 40-hectare lifestyle properties to tree-changers preparing for a move down the track.

“They’re buying them, paying them off and then they’re going to build a house and retire up here.”

Mr Salt, meanwhile, sees no indication that the tree-change phenomenon won’t continue for the foreseeable future.

“The lure of the bush — the lifestyle — is incredibly powerful, whether in fact it’s the tree-change or the sea-change option.

“We are a lifestyle-driven people, you only have to look at our demography to see that. We love the beach and, increasingly, we love these ‘cutie-pie’ little towns within striking distance of Melbourne. [They] just keep on growing, year in, year out.”

Earning a crust in a tiny town

David Cummins made the move from Melbourne to the small community of Chewton, just outside Castlemaine, about two years ago.

As a conveyancer who had previously lived in Northcote for 20 years, he decided to make the move — along with his mother and a family friend — after seeing some of his clients successfully do so.

“Primarily, we needed the business to be able to operate within an hour of the city,” he says. “We needed all the services like broadband, phone services and overnight express post … that kind of thing.”

They subsequently moved into Chewton’s former bakery and have renovated it to provide them with three separate residences, as well as an office from where he now works.

While his clients are still based in the Northcote area, Mr Cummins says he’s had to return to Melbourne for work less often than he had expected.

“It’s all emails, fax correspondence and phone calls, anyway.”

Mr Cummins says he should have made the move years ago and adds that he’s moved not just for the peace and quiet but for the chance to have a change of lifestyle. “It’s fairly relaxed,” he adds


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