Information about work, life and play in Regional Australia

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sydney or the Bush - a few numbers

I like Sydney.

For several years when I was young we used to come for seaside holidays at Manly, staying in a private hotel near the beach. The hot pavements, the seaside stores where we brought drinks, going into the city for the day, all were fun. Then I came to Sydney sometimes to play sport, to run at the GPS athletics, to play Rugby. Again fun. Travelling in holidays to stay with a friend a Molong, the break in trains meant that I spent a day in the city on the way down and back. So I wondered around, looking at the buildings and going to the pictures.

A little later I worked here for a short period, staying in a flat at McMahon's Point while working in the city. Later still I had girlfriends here, so I used to drive or fly up from Canberra for the weekend. Each weekend I would spend travelling round, trying new places to eat, visiting galleries and bookshops, going to the theatre. Then I had to spend time in the city on business, usually staying at the same hotel in the Cross and visiting my favourite restaurants.

So Sydney was fun, and I knew it very well.

I now live in Sydney. We have lived here for the last nine years because my wife is a Sydney girl. All her family lives in the Eastern Suburbs and she wanted to come home. This was the right decision from a family viewpoint. My wife has enjoyed being close to her family, our daughters have made many friends here and like aspects of the city lifestyle.

So we are here at least until the youngest finishes school. At the same time, I am becoming increasingly conscious of the problems with this place - Sydney - and the trade-offs we have had to make to live here. The beauty is still there, so are some of the things I used to like. The difficulty is that living here with a family as compared to visiting really makes for an uncivilised life style.

I want to explain this, comparing Rosebery where we now live with Armidale. I have selected Armidale because it has - minus the sea - a comparable life style to the eastern suburbs, while I know it very well. Similar analysis can be applied to other suburbs, other towns with the mix depending on varying interests and life styles.

Rosebery first.

Until very recently, Rosebery was one of the undiscovered secrets of Sydney. An inner city suburb (it is about 6k from the centre of Sydney), Rosebery sits close to the start points of the northern and southern express ways. It is a mixed suburb, part industrial, part residential.

Rosebery has many good features beyond location. Settled by Greeks just after the Second World War, our local MFC supermarket has windows stacked with tins of olive oil, bins with a wide variety of olives, cheese etc, and has been written up in Sydney's Good Food Guide. The girls love the nearby factory outlets. Overall, there is an attractive, cosmopolitan feel about the suburb.

So when I compare Rosebery with Armidale I am taking a good part of Sydney as my base.

Now Armidale. It is a university city of 22,000 people located on the New England Tablelands midway between Sydney and Brisbane. Set in beautiful countryside, it is an attractive city in visual terms with excellent facilities.

The comparison. Here I want to focus on things that are different. So, for example, I will ignore food. Food costs are much the same. There is also little difference in variety. If anything, Armidale has greater variety taking reasonable travel times into account.

Let's start with housing. We cannot afford to buy in Rosebery where house prices have now passed the million dollar mark. Armidale average house prices are less than a third of this. So we have to rent.

Rosebery rents are lower than, say, Kensington, higher than Mascot. We are presently paying $490 a week for a three bedroom house. The house is small by the standards I am used to, but has a reasonable size yard.

To compare this with Armidale I did a current rent check. The most expensive house I could find in Armidale had seven bedrooms, two bathrooms, internet connections throughout. The rent (negotiable) was $ 450 per week.

The nearest equivalent houses that I could find to our Rosebery house were rentable at $230 per week. Putting this in dollar terms, we need as a family to earn an extra $13,250 per annum after tax for the same standard of house in Sydney as compared to Armidale.

Given the size of Sydney houses in the area in which we want to live, I had to put my books and some household stuff in storage when we moved down. I also have some stuff in my cousin's garage in Wagga Wagga. I love my books and not having them round is a very real if intangible cost.

Storage costs $280 per month or $3,360 per annum after tax. The houses I have looked at in Armidale all had space for my things.

Turning now to school fees. When we were in Armidale, both girls were going to the New England Girl's School. When we came to Sydney, we put both girls into an Eastern suburbs Anglican school.

In Armidale our eldest was on a part scholarship. Ignoring this, Sydney school fees were about 20 per cent higher, I think more so now. Eldest daughter has just begun university, so we are paying school fees just for one. Extra cost for school fees for one around $3,200 per annum in after tax terms.

Turning now to transport. This has to be looked at in terms of time and cost.

Time first.

In Armidale, every thing in the city is within a five to eight minute drive. I could drive from work to school to pick up the girls and then home all in eight minutes. If we were going out to dinner at, say, seven, we could leave at at 6.50 to 6.55. With the exception of Sydney trips - Armidale schools often play sport in Sydney or to a lesser extent other centres - school sport was a cinch in travel terms. Out-of-town sport does involve some extra cost but not so much time because they are generally done as a coordinated school activitity independent of individual parents. With parking easy and everything well located, Saturday morning shopping was an enjoyable activity allowing plenty of time for coffee and conversation.

Because Rosebery is remarkably well located, travel is relatively easy and quick by Sydney standards. For example, I normally do my grocery shopping at Eastlakes. The centre is not as pleasant as Armidale, but travel time is in fact about the same. This is not true when we move to other activities.

My wife has been working at North Sydney, normally travelling by public transport. This is not bad, involving a bus just outside our front door with a stop outside central, then a train to North Sydney. Travel time varies depending on connections, but varies between 40 minutes to 80 minutes each way. Cost around $9 return. So in a week she spends an extra 150 to 350 minutes each week in work travel time as compared to Armidale at a cash out cost of $45 per week. Sometimes she takes the car or gets a taxi to save time. Costs then rise sharply.

I have usually worked from home because this allows me to do the main domestic duties. When I do travel it is usually to attend specific meetings. I am ignoring this element because it is just too difficult to calculate.

Daughter travel time and costs are quite complicated. But then, so is their life style. University and school first.

Eldest is doing first year business studies at the UTS campus at Kuringai. She usually takes the bus to the city campus, then the UTS shuttle from there. Return trip about four hours including connection waits, so she does not spend as much time on campus as she would if she were attending the University of New England. On her current timetable, total University travel time about twelve hours per week.

Youngest goes to school at Waverly. Bus travel involves two routes and takes around an hour each way. Because she is a school student bus travel is free. Because she often has to be at school early, I generally drive her to school and also pick her up most afternoons. Trip varies enormously because of traffic, ranging from 15-20 minutes up to 35 minutes each way. In all, these school trips take me up to five additional hours each week as compared to Armidale.

We then come to sport and other activities. This is where life gets incredibly complicated.

Both girls play sport, usually at times and in locations precluding public transport. Beside, my wife and I like to watch. Travel time varies enormously depending upon location and can range from a 30 minute to well over two hour return trip. During term time, we would spend at least four hours a week driving to venues.

Both girls have been working part time. This is a two edged sword. Work is important for a number of reasons, but then travel by public transport takes a lot of time compared to actual working hours. So we usually end up driving them part of the time, essentially subsidising the work process.

Social and other extra-curricula activities for all then have to be factored in. Again, this is more time consuming and costly involving a mix of car, taxi and public transport.

Putting all this together properly almost requires a mathematical model. However, as best I can work out taking Armidale's higher petrol prices into account, living in Sydney as compared to Armidale:

  • involves each family member in between ten and twenty hours extra travel time per week. This is time not available to other activities
  • at an extra cash out cost for petrol and fares of something over $100 per week, or $5,200 per annum.

Drawing the financial analysis together, and excluding time, I estimate the added annual cost of living in Sydney for something approaching the same life style as Armidale as roughly $25,000 broken up as follows:

  • rent $13,250
  • storage $3,360
  • school fees (one daughter) $3,200
  • added transport costs $5,200.

To meet these additional costs, we need a collective additional family income before tax of perhaps $42,000 depending upon marginal tax rates. Then there are the added time costs.

Accepting that many things come together in life style choices, accepting also that my numbers are rough, the figures show why I have real reservations about Sydney as a life style choice.

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