By Katrina Creer
After bushfires ripped through 5.3 million hectares across NSW last summer, it was hard to believe anyone would want to rebuild in the devastated areas – let alone move there.
But, just like the first shoots of growth now starting to appear in blackened bushland, these communities are also regenerating.
What couldn’t have been imagined in the weeks following the fires - which destroyed more than 2,000 homes - was that a bigger threat was on the horizon.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many to rethink their future bringing a surge of new buyers to regional areas – even those severely impacted by the bushfires.
A new beginning
David Nolan, director of Webster Nolan Real Estate who specialises in farm sales, believes rural communities have a common sense ‘life goes on’ attitude when it comes to bushfires and they understand it is just part of living in Australia. But even he was taken aback by the intensity of last summer’s blazes.
“I have been through all the fire areas, I am fourth generation from the land, and I have seen things that just astounded me how they burnt,” said Mr Nolan, a REINSW member.
“Some people are selling because they may not want to experience fires again – but they also may have sold anyway.
“But I don’t think the fires have scared everybody away or that the fires are stopping people from buying properties.”
At a time when these communities are recovering, the COVID-19 pandemic has also bought a wave of new buyers, keen to leave Sydney and work remotely.
“People’s minds are off fires – they are now looking after themselves and want to find space out of the city – it is extraordinary how many people are moving,” Mr Nolan said.
“We take people through towns and out to these farms which means driving through affected areas for 20 minutes or so and you can’t hide it – it is pretty real - it is in your face.
“People’s attitude is ‘what is burnt now may not burn again for a fair while’.”
At Batemans Bay, one of the hardest hit areas, property prices have been steadily rising this year. It is also becoming increasingly hard to find a vacant rental in the seaside town.
Jenni Whittaker, director of The Professionals and REINSW member, has sold a number of properties in recent weeks where the buyer did not physically inspect the home. This included one purchaser in lock-down in Melbourne.
“There has been a real fear of missing out,” Ms Whittaker said.
“After the fires the prices went up because a lot of people who had lost their homes chose not to rebuild which created a lot of competition in the local market.
“It went up again after COVID because there has been an influx of people wanting to move to the area.”
One property that was destroyed in the bushfire had been on the market at the time for $769,000. It was relisted as vacant land with a price guide of $499,000 but recently sold for $530,000.
Ms Whittaker says it has been wonderful seeing the community rally together to help those who lost their homes and possessions in the bushfires.
“The bushfires have not caused people to move away, they have chosen to stay - there is a sense of togetherness – we understand what we have all been through,” she said.
One silver lining has been the willingness of the community to help one another following the disaster including from within the property sector.
The Beyond the Bricks campaign raised a total $1.5m for fire-affected communities and is the first time all the major real estate brands came together for the one cause.
“Real estate is considered very cut-throat but for all of us to unite for bushfire relief has been incredible,” said Todd Alexander, National Marketing manager for Ray White, where the initiative was launched last summer.
“We wanted to raise as much as possible to assist those communities in need.”
The campaign, which was divided into three phases – relief, rebuild and restore – has now closed. The funds have been donated to four charities – the Salvation Army, World Wide Fund for Nature, the Australian Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul Society.
Prepared for future
Edith Byrne, a member of the REINSW’s Property Management Committee, believes one of the positives to come out of the tragedy is better awareness.
This includes packing a bushfire kit box with special mementoes and personal documents, such as passports, that can be quickly picked up when being evacuated.
“I think it has taken this to make people really aware,” said Ms Byrne, licensee of No Bull Real Estate in West Wallsend.
“People think ‘I’m ready’ but it is not until it actually happens or the fire is close - like it was for us - that people realise they weren’t prepared so, it is one of the main positives from last summer.”
While landlords typically have maintenance plans for their properties, they are now ensuring they too are bushfire ready - including having gutters cleared and homes washed down.
“We have just started to see the greenery growing back in the fire damaged areas and it is beautiful,” Ms Byrne said.
“The bushfires bought the community here closer together – it was wonderful seeing people help each other and be empathetic of those who had suffered a loss of some form.”
Donations to the bushfire appeal can be made at the following:
World Wide Fund for Nature
Australian Red Cross