Talk of the town(house)

Mahmoud Nabavi and his wife Sahar Farhang would have no hesitation in recommending townhouse living to anyone. Little more than two and a half years ago, the couple moved from a St Kilda Rd apartment into their Aura Park residence at Somerfield and couldn’t be happier. “Townhouse living really is the best choice for us at this stage of our lives,” he said. “We don’t have any kids and don’t think we could have chosen better.”

Nabavi said the reasons for choosing the Aura Park townhouses were three-fold: budget, security and size. “Obviously, we didn’t want to spend too much. But with just my wife and I and our work commitments we wanted to feel secure in our home, and that has been so much better than we could have expected,” Nabavi said. “It’s so quiet around the area, and (inside) it’s not cramped at all. The scale is smaller than a house, but we have everything we need. We are very comfortable. When friends come over and compare it to their apartments, my wife and I are both very happy (with what we have chosen).”

The two-level townhouse has a kitchen, living, dining area and a toilet on one level, and three bedrooms and two bathrooms on the second level. Nabavi said he particularly loved the 70sq m backyard and the separate garage. “We have a view from front and back of nice green areas,” he said. “In terms of location, we have more than what we need. We overlook a park and are a seven-minute walk (or five-minute drive) to the train, a two-minute walk to the bus and an eight-minute drive to Chelsea beach. We are in a good spot. We were in St Kilda Rd beforehand and could spent two hours in traffic trying to travel 10km from the city to home. But now we could be driving from the city to here and only take 40 minutes or so. It’s so much easier and less stressful.”

The townhouse was perfect for a couple or for a young family with one child, Nabavi said. As countless other young Australians search for a way into the housing market, it’s worth considering some sobering facts. In 1950, the average Australian home was less than 1000 square feet (93sq m) in size. Today, this figure has more than doubled, and Australians have the biggest average house size in the world. The good news is the trend is starting to reverse to a more manageable size, with an ageing population, changes to household formation, and affordability major considerations.

In the bigger picture, the population challenges facing Melbourne and Australia in coming decades are considerable. Charter Keck Cramer estimates that by 2050, the Australian population will jump to 38 million (from 23.8 million in 2016), with Melbourne’s population to rival Sydney and reach almost 7.7 million. To successfully cope with the growth, the strategic property consultants say we must build another six million homes in our cities, we need 20 million square metres of office space, seven million square metres of retail space, childcare facilities must increase by another 66 per cent, and retirement facilities must hold 610,000 more residents (or 232 per cent of its current capacity).

The industry is already changing, but the transformation to medium-density living is only just beginning. McCrindle Research reported on its blog that about three in four Australians live in a detached home. Another 14 per cent were apartment dwellers, with another 10 per cent residing in townhouses. But with two in three new-housing approvals slated for medium- and high-density dwellings in Victoria, the Great Australian Dream is gradually undergoing a transformation. “We are starting to get more densified, with an increase in vertical communities compared to the more traditional horizontal ones, and that’s where we are headed in the future,” the blog reported.

That’s where townhouses come in.

In its report The Advantages of Living and Investing In a Townhouse, property consultants Urbis said townhouses were emerging “with many of the attributes of a traditional family home yet offering a number of distinctive advantages over most apartment developments”. Demand had increased significantly due to the substantial increase in the number of one- and two-person households over the past decade. Current forecasts indicate Melbourne’s population will reach five million by 2026, which is the equivalent of an additional 60,000 people each year. It parallels the long-term trend in declining household sizes that reflects people marrying and/or having children later in life and the ageing population.

Urbis predicts that over the next 20 years, of all the new households created, 35 per cent will be catering for lone persons and another 35 per cent for couples without children. “Australians in the future will have smaller households, increasingly comprising lone young singles, elderly single, elderly and young couples with no children.” The view is reflected by a 2011 Grattan Institute report, The Housing We’d Choose, in which almost 50 per cent of the Melbourne respondents indicated they would be prepared to live in medium-density dwellings (apartments and townhouses).

Interestingly, the dwelling attributes (number of bedrooms, garage, pool), safety and security (access to secure parking), convenience and locational attributes – access (proximity to a shopping centre and public transport) and attractiveness of environment (proximity to a park and cleanliness) influenced purchasing decisions. It concluded that the size and number of spaces in a dwelling are more important than if the dwelling is attached or detached, and that a townhouse “satisfies the main influences on dwelling purchase choices”.

The statistics show clearly the wheel in turning in favour of smaller homes. IBISWorld senior industry analyst Anthony Kelly said the multi-unit apartment and townhouse industry had grown strongly over the past five years, boosted by foreign investment, population growth and historically low mortgage interest rates. And despite a sharp correction expected this fiscal year as investors hold off to allow recently added stock to be absorbed, he expected the industry’s worth to reach $17.4 billion in 2016-17 and strengthen within the next five years to reach $22.1 billion by 2021-22.

Hallmarc Developments director Michael Loccisano said townhouses provided an affordable and sensible solution to the issue of increasing population density. He said household sizes had shrunk from an average of 4.5 people 30 years ago to 2.3 people today. But, statistically speaking, 80 per cent of the new housing being built now only suited 20 per cent of the population. Hence, we are witnessing the rise and rise of townhouses.

Predominantly the domain of young couples and families with young children, the humble townhouse is undergoing a surge of popularity. In most new estates townhouses can account for up to 10 per cent of the housing stock.“Land costs are going up and construction costs, such as labour, are going up, so (buying and building a home) is not likely to get any cheaper,” Loccisano said. Burbank’s general manager of developments Neil Anderson said townhouse buyers come from both ends of the spectrum – from young couples starting out and families upgrading from apartments to empty nesters wanting extra space for a study or a spare room. Anderson said a fixed percentage of master-planned communities were designated as medium-density development in Precinct Structure Plans (PSP), and that figure was rising. “Twenty or 30 years ago, townhouses were typically left to the end of any estate developments. But now developers are getting on the front foot because townhouses are a key living option because of their affordability,” Anderson said. “Thankfully, the townhouses of today are not like the terrace-style townhouses of 100 years ago that were generally dark, damp and depressing places to live. They are light-filled spaces with high-end finishes and flexible designs. Design wise, many are either two or three storeys and have between two and four bedrooms and a long list of easy-living features. They really are a pretty good way to live.”

Expectations are much higher in the 21st century, Anderson said, with en suites now commonplace when they were once considered a luxury. Double-glazing, solar hot water, water tanks, and zoned heating and cooling on all levels were other easy-living features fast becoming standard inclusions. Discerning buyers want a bathroom or powder room on each level, Anderson said, with ground-level storage and bike storage among the desirable features. The reverse living trend was also popular in townhouses, depending on the outlook. “Vertical living really gives you plenty of design options, so you may have a roof terrace or a ground-floor living area, or a living area that opens to a large balcony,” Anderson said. “Even better, you’re not having to do landscaping or putting in blinds – it’s a turn-key property so you basically move in and enjoy.”

Location location may be the mantra for established real estate, but it’s especially the case with townhouses. More importantly in terms of lifestyle, Anderson said developers usually placed townhouses at the heart of activity centres, so they were close to public transport, retail centres, schools, childcare facilities, parks and reserves. In many cases, they are opposite parks so it eliminates the need for a large backyard and ensures the open space is well used by the community. “Often you’re only a walk to the station or the park or wherever you’re going in the community, so you can get around without having to drive,” Anderson said.

Loccisano said most buyers valued location over other features. In particular, access to schools, shopping centres and public transport rate highly, while families are seeking good parks with swings and slides for their young children. But open space is equally important as the toddlers grow up. The St A and Jackson Green developments with Cedar Woods, at St Albans and Clayton South respectively, were typical examples of the lifestyle benefits of being based around activity nodes. For example, the Jackson Green townhouses were 1km from the Clayton Rd shopping strip and Clayton train station, a five-minute drive to Monash Medical Centre, 10km from Monash University and technology precinct.

Anderson said townhouses had come a long way since the 1980s, with advances in building materials making major improvements: “The soundproofing performance is so much better. Even on a busy road, double-glazing can provide a very significant difference. Once you shut the door, there’s no way you would know there’s traffic outside. And now there’s also really smart and solid (party) walls that ensure you don’t get the transfer of noise and heat that may have occurred in the past.”

Good design also plays its part. The most common example was using wardrobes on either side of the walls to increase the noise buffer. Smarter floorplans have also created better levels of comfort. Anderson said the most popular design was a tri-level townhouse with three bedrooms. It includes a ground-level bedroom, middle-level living area and two bedrooms and bathroom on the top level. The balcony was another space that had replaced the backyard, Anderson said. “We try and provide terraces that are useable year round – whether it’s opening doors for ventilation or simply asking ‘Can I get a table out there that I can sit around in a comfortable manner and even have room for a barbecue?’

Town Living by Metricon general manager Paul Vujovick said there was an increasing demand for two-bedroom designs with two bathrooms and a powder room. “We’re always working towards updating and modifying our home designs, reflecting our customers’ needs,” Vujovick said. “Townhouses have become increasingly popular throughout Australia because they offer extreme versatility for home buyers. Where and how we live is changing, shaped by our different lifestyle, expectations and budgets, and townhouses offer brand new, low-maintenance homes in highly desirable areas. They can be built in different areas, resulting in increased purchasing opportunities, and they’re available in a range of different shapes and sizes to suit varying property needs. We have many design options available within the TownLiving by Metricon townhouse range, such as two, three or four bedrooms, upstairs or downstairs living, or even townhouses with features, such as decking, balconies and courtyards. Our range includes both detached and attached single-storey, double-storey and triple-storey designs, so there really is something for everyone.”

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