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Why families can be happy in high-rises too

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Are apartments appropriate places to bring up families?  Might they even be better for you and your kids than a free-standing house, in some ways?

While the vast majority of people in this country still live in a free-standing house, an increasing number now live in apartments, writes Sue Williams in Domain.

In 2016, according to the most recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, families with kids made up about 24 per cent of households living in apartments in the state.

That proportion is likely only to grow even though it’s at odds with the accepted Australian wisdom that it’s always much better to bring up families in free-standing houses than in apartments.

Apart from anything else, the boom in Sydney house prices is far outpacing the rise in apartment costs.

According to the Domain House Price Report, the median house price went from 55 per cent more than an apartment in the first quarter of 2020 to a record 74 per cent for the same period this year. The median house price was $1.31 million in March, and the unit median was $751,000.

“It’s now harder for young families to be able to afford to choose to live in a house,” says buyers’ agent Patrick Bright, director of EPS Property Search and author of The Insider’s Guide to Buying Real Estate. 

“I’ll chat to a client and say to them that if their budget is X and they want a house, then these are the locations they’ll be able to afford.

“Alternatively, if they’re open to the idea of an apartment, then they’ll be able to pay a bit less and afford something usually far closer to their work and where they’d ideally want to live. That might mean a 20-minute commute rather than an hour’s commute, so they’d have more time to enjoy with their family.”

Patrick knows the dilemma personally, too. When he started out, he lived with his family of three kids in a unit by the beach and only moved into a house with the arrival of his fourth child. “We lived in a great location, and an apartment was fine for us then,” he says. 

While many parent still hanker after the old ideal of a house on a quarter-acre block, there are many who believe apartments are definitely the way to go.

Houses certainly have it over apartments when it comes to making noise, privacy, space (if you can afford a bigger one), owning a backyard and enjoying the freedom to make your own decisions – local council agreeing – about what you want to do with it.

On the other hand, you’ll probably end up living further away from the city action, spend many of your weekends mowing lawns and doing maintenance and paying all your own bills.

On the upside for apartments: they may be more affordable options closer to the city or in a favourite suburb, there are other people to do the maintenance, bills are shared, there might be communal pools, gardens and barbecues, they tend to have better security, and you can lock them up and leave any time you want to travel, especially in the (possibly distant) future when you want to go overseas. 

On the downside is living cheek-by-jowl with your neighbours, usually having less space and smaller outdoor areas, and enduring the owners’ corporation making the rules for you on issues like pet ownership and renovations and striking levies. 

It’s the mindset that’s the most important element, believes Phillipa Dobbin, director of the apartment owners peak body, the Owners Corporation Network. 

“Being closer to amenities and transport hubs, having shared facilities and a ready-made community is usually what makes it worth sacrificing the old Aussie dream of the quarter-acre block for,” she says. “But, really, you can make yourself happy wherever you are!”

And some of the assumptions we make about the necessity of bigger spaces and more bedrooms for families may not necessarily be right. Professor Michael Dockery, a research fellow at Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, has conducted a study of how much space families need. 

From the results, he hypothesises, “higher density living and sharing bedrooms are generally associated with more positive outcomes for children in the mental health sphere and behavioural development”. 

This article is an edited extract from “A young family’s dilemma: Is a house really better for raising kids than an apartment?” in Domain online.

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