Expats desperately seeking to return home to Australia are forking out millions of dollars on luxury property sight unseen, enlisting the help of family or turning to virtual inspections.
Usually over the Christmas period, when wealthy professionals based overseas come home to visit family, those planning a permanent return later take the opportunity to inspect a string of top-end properties for sale.
But the global pandemic and subsequent border restrictions have disrupted the expat real estate market – though it’s not from a lack of demand, even as border restrictions leave many Aussies abroad in limbo.
“There does seem to be very strong interest in getting back to Australia,” Sydney Sotheby’s International Realty’s Daphne Sauvage.
“These are people who have gone off for fabulous jobs thinking they’ve made it, and then find themselves in an environment that from a health or political point of view is not ideal.”
Even without the certainty of a ticket back into the country, expats are spending millions of dollars on prestige property in Sydney and Melbourne’s most exclusive neighbourhoods, or looking further afield.
“The issue for them is – number one – secure the home, then make sure it’s producing income, and then work out how they can exit the situation they are in,” Ms Sauvage said.
Video chats and virtual tours are the new norm, as well as friends or family members routinely inspecting properties.
“In this time of no international travel, a lot of expats have family purchase property on their behalf,” said John Bongiorno, director of Marshall White. “It’s not limited to any one particular price range – it varies from $1 million properties to $20 million properties.”
Mr Bongiorno said the number of transactions involving expats had peaked in the middle of the year but had since dropped due to the limited number of Australians allowed to return to the country each week.
“I think those people are obviously frustrated with not being able to travel freely,” he said.
It is estimated there are 36,000 Australians abroad trying to return home, with a small pool of airlines offering a capped number of seats into the country each week.
As much of the globe wrestles with economic and political uncertainty, and deadly outbreaks of coronavirus, Australian expats are increasingly viewing their homeland as an attractive place to live and invest in real estate.
“Expats we’re dealing with overseas are still relatively buoyant about Australian real estate,” Mr Bongiorno said.
His agency has noticed an increase in interest from those living in the United States, with Mr Bongiorno citing “the instability of the election and a lack of COVID-19 management” as the main drivers.
“A lot of the expats say the COVID-19 situation in America is abysmal,” he said. “There’s also a lot of enquiry from our Australian-English expats over in London, given they’re bored in lockdown again.”
Kay & Burton’s Jamie Mi estimated half of the properties transacting in the international space had sold to returning Australians.
“There’s a lot of new enquiries in the expat market from Dubai, London, New York and Hong Kong, increasingly from Shanghai as well,” Ms Mi said.
In recent weeks, she has fielded international interest in a three-bedroom penthouse in Toorak with a $15 million price guide.
While many expats return to their former home cities of Melbourne or Sydney, others have set their sights on Byron Bay, the country’s latest luxury property hotspot.
“The people who can work from anywhere are looking at Byron to create their new offices and businesses here,” said Pacifico Property’s Christian Sergiocomi.
Others will have a Sydney or Melbourne bolthole, splitting their time between the city and Byron Bay.
In September, Mr Sergiocomi sold a large family home in the Byron hinterland, advertised for $3.6 million to $3.8 million, to expats from Hong Kong.
The buyers saw the property only through video tours and are yet to fly into Australia to see their new purchase. Mr Sergiocomi said expats wanted to secure a special place at home, even if they did not know when they would be able to return.
“They’re buying the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.