Australians are being asked to make tough decisions to keep a roof over their heads. What would you do?

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What would you do to keep a roof over your head? 

The ABC has spoken to dozens of people trying to survive in Australia’s property market.

Use the following interactive and see how you would tackle some of the scenarios faced by many Australians.

You’ll make the decisions, and see what life’s like for those who don’t always have one.

Tap below to begin… 👇

About this interactive…

This bot is based on interviews with renters and home owners who responded to the ABC’s call for readers to share their struggles with cost-of-living pressures.

*Due to the disclosure of personal financial information, some names in this bot and story have been changed for privacy.

Man's hands tape up a box when moving house.
Rents across Australia are increasing — here’s what you told us about trying to navigate the housing market.(Flickr)

This is what you told us about navigating the housing market

For many Australians, the scenarios you just navigated in this chatbot aren’t hypothetical — and there’s certainly no button to start over.

As rents increase, interest rates rise and the cost of living grows, people from all corners of the country and walks of life are being forced to make difficult decisions. 

Some are long past the point of trying to find fat to trim in the budget. Others would love to try and find somewhere more affordable to live, but life is seldom that simple.

This is what they want you to know:

Deciding to accept a rent increase isn’t easy — but neither is challenging one

A reduction of rental stock combined with increasing demand has seen asking prices across the country skyrocket.

While nowhere has been immune, coastal and “lifestyle” markets have heavily felt the effects of pandemic price hikes as remote work saw some swapping the city for a sea-change.

In northern NSW, the portion of income required to pay median rents on a new lease in Richmond-Tweed, which takes in destinations like Byron Bay, now stands at 53 per cent — more than 20 per cent above the threshold for rental stress.

It’s something Byron Bay resident Sarah*, who reluctantly accepted a rent increase of $180 per week, has become all too familiar with. 

When she was first notified her rent would be increasing from $640 to $820 per week, she wanted to challenge the decision. But the real estate was blunt: “Accept the increase or lose the house.”

“There was literally nothing available within a reasonable radius for me to travel to work in the Byron CBD every day,” adds Sarah, who was forced to find a new roommate not longer after the increase.

“I found one studio that didn’t even have a full kitchen (a camp stove two-burner and a sink) in the hinterland advertised for $650 per week. What single person can afford that on a regional income?”

Tenants who believe a rent increase is excessive can challenge it through their state or territory’s civil and administrative tribunal.

These bodies look at a range of factors, but the “primary one that gets considered is what’s happening in the market”, says Jemima Mowbray from the Tenants Union of NSW.

Amateur photographers snap up a beautiful Byron Bay sunset.
While nowhere has been immune, coastal and “lifestyle” markets have heavily felt the effects of pandemic price hikes.(ABC North Coast: Samantha Turnbull)

“So when you go to tribunal, that kind of one protection is really that the market is increasing,” she says. “We are seeing even sitting tenants getting those really big increases, and when new [places] are listed, it’s not just that prices are creeping up, they’re increasing very quickly.

“Households that were just getting by are now finding they’ve got to cut back in all other areas of their life just to keep the roof over their head.”

To cover rent, which Sarah estimates now takes up about 60 per cent of her average income, she’s had to pick up extra contract and casual work on the side. 

But she fears another increase would mean she’d be forced to leave behind the life she’s built over the past seven years.

“It’s interesting that when you apply for a property, agents assess your income to determine if you can afford the rent,” she says. “But they never consider that when they decide to increase the rent mid-lease.”

Your rent has gone up by 50 per cent, but your salary hasn’t

While mining towns like Gladstone may be well accustomed to the ebbs and flows of the market, for longtime local Andy*, things have become markedly more difficult in recent years.

Between March 2021 and 2022, the median rent for houses in the central Queensland community increased by $160 per week

It’s symptomatic of a broader, national trend that has seen the portion of household income required to service rents in regional Australia hit a record high of 34 per cent this year.

With limited vacancies and increasing demand, Andy is now paying $300 per week for rent — up from $200 in 2019. At the same time, he estimates that his income has only increased by $50 per week.

“Any further increases mean I have to further dip into my remaining savings and/or seriously reduce my quality of life,” says the 52-year-old.

A shot of the Gladstone CBD from above.
While mining towns like Gladstone may be well accustomed to the ebbs and flows of the market, for longtime local Andy*, things have become markedly more difficult in recent years.(ABC News: Christoper Gillette )

“A further increase of $50 a week or more will probably force me out of this house, and there are very little affordable alternatives in Gladstone, even if I downsize to a unit, which would drastically impact on my quality of life.”

To make ends meet, Andy’s had to make some major sacrifices. He’s stopped using his car and goes without heating and air conditioning. His car and contents insurance and health insurance have been scaled back or axed entirely.

Lately, he’s been finding it “too costly” to buy the same fresh produce that he used to.

“I take pride in being able to make ends meet, but it is becoming quite difficult to find any more savings,” he says.

“Insufficient is being done to support low and middle-income renters through social housing [and] extending rent assistance and power rebates to those just above the current criteria,” he adds.

You save and save, but the goalposts keep shifting

According to the ANZ CoreLogic housing affordability report, released in May, the national median dwelling value in March was an estimated 8.5 times the median annual household income level nationally. 

The biggest increase was across regional Australia, where property prices have risen substantially more than incomes.

It’s a predicament Mark and his family, who live in Bathurst, NSW, have spent the better part of two years trying to navigate.

When he and his wife were pre-approved for a home loan in 2020, they were in the market for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home with a budget of about $350,000.

But amid an influx of tree-changers and investors, the regional community — some 200 kilometres west of Sydney — soon experienced its highest median house price growth in 16 years.

Sold
Property prices have risen substantially more than incomes in regional Australia.(Reuters: David Gray)

“Due to investors and other [people] in the same boat of not having a huge budget, everyone was fighting for the houses on the lower end of the market,” Mark says.

“So we sat back and watched us get priced out.”

As of this year, the median price for a three-bedroom property in Bathurst is $600,000It means the dream of owning a home remains out of reach for now. 

“We’re hopeful things will change. We are approaching it in a sense where we are being smart about what we offer on properties,” Mark says.

“[We] don’t know how far [the market] will drop, [but] we have seen some properties get listed for more realistic prices.”

For those escaping the city, the grass isn’t always greener

While the flexibility of remote work during the pandemic saw some look to the regions for a reprieve from city life, for others, it was more of a necessity.

Priced out of the city and forced to find an “emergency rental” after selling her Perth townhouse, Rebecca and her family relocated to regional Western Australia in 2020 in search of more stability.

While a change of scenery would allow the young family to ultimately secure a larger property without the Perth price tag, it’s also come with some unexpected expenses, particularly as the cost of living has grown.

“My husband is earning about $20,000 more per year. And we’ve been trying to figure out where it’s gone, and it’s just that everything is a little bit more expensive, you know?” she says.

In order to make the 500-kilometre move and work around the lack of public transport, Rebecca and her husband had to take out a loan for a second car.

At the time, they didn’t realise “how risky it was”.

“It became very difficult to get a lender because of that,” she explains.

They’re now working to pay down the loan before their fixed-rate agreement ends and mortgage payments rise, in the background of mounting day-to-day expenses.

Three cars in a parking lot.
Rebecca and her husband soon realised they would need a second car when they moved to regional WA.(ABC News)

Rebecca’s husband, who is the family’s primary earner, lives with a chronic illness, and a lack of shopping options means “it’s a constant battle to stay on budget” and buy healthy food.

“He’s had to go to Perth because they didn’t have a specialist here, it’s really hard to get in,” says Rebecca, who alongside her daughter, also has to travel to the city to see a specialist this month.

“But to do that two times a year, we can’t afford a $400 flight, $150 for a hotel and food, plus specialists. It’s going to be at least $1,000 every trip.”

For some, there’s only so long you can spend saving

It takes a first-home buyer almost 11.5 years to save a 20 per cent deposit for an average-priced home. That is, of course, assuming that “average” prices stay the same.

Rebecca and her husband, aged in their 40s, spent years saving to buy their first home in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. 

But, as house prices rose, so too did the figure they needed. They ultimately decided that taking on lenders’ mortgage insurance would cost them less in the long run than continuing to save and risking further price increases.

“Being first-time buyers at our age, in some ways, isn’t ideal,” says Rebecca, who entered the market with her husband earlier this year.

“The banks made reference to the fact that my husband would be in his 60s by the time it would be paid off.”

An aerial view of Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs.
Rebecca and her husband bought their first home in Melbourne this year.(AAP: Julian Smith)

After finding themselves outbid on a property by upwards of $200,000, they decided to reassess their budget and engaged a buyer’s advocate.

They ultimately settled on a three-bedroom home for about $100,000 above their initial price point.

They’re using one salary to pay down the principal “and living off the other”, but recently they’ve “noticed that the interest itself has doubled already”.

“The actual mortgage payments per month have shifted by about $750 a month,” Rebecca says.

While the increase, alongside growing costs of living, is a hit to the hit pocket, Rebecca and her husband are confident they’ll be able to manage further rate rises.

“We’re very conscious of our privilege in that regard. However, my husband’s a contractor and he could find himself out of work at any time,” Rebecca says.

“The job security, or lack of security, that a lot of industries have experienced over the last while obviously does sit in the back of our minds.”

You’ve spent months searching and have nothing to show for it

For those renting in capital cities, the market has become even more challenging: the national vacancy rate has fallen to its lowest level on record.

According to CoreLogic’s quarterly rental review, released in July, Adelaide recorded its biggest quarterly growth in rents since records commenced in 2005.

At the same time, the city had the tightest rental markets in the country, with just 0.3 per cent of Adelaide’s houses and units listed as vacant in June.

It’s of little surprise to Jessica*, who had to move back in with her parents after her rental property in Adelaide was put up for sale, and the 27-year-old found herself unable to secure a new place.

“I was looking for two months and got absolutely nowhere,” she says. “I was going to open inspections and people were offering to pay six months of rent up-front in cash.”

“It was move back in with my parents, couch surfing or sleeping in my car.”

Across the country, it’s a familiar story. When the fastest-growing cost of living is one of the most essential, some Australians are being forced into a tight spot.

Couples who are out of work, single parents on Centrelink payments, and people on the Disability Support Pension all face a market where 0.1 per cent of rentals are affordable, according to Anglicare’s Rental Affordability Snapshot, released in April.

People walk through the front door of a house, past a For Lease sign
Jessica* says she found herself competing with dozens of other people at rental inspections.(ABC News: Jack Fisher/File)

“We are hearing of many more people who are forced into homelessness, living in cars or tents because rents are too expensive,” says ACOSS Acting CEO, Edwina MacDonald.

“We hear more of people who go to extreme lengths to afford their rent,” she adds.

“People are limiting their showers to every second or third day, skipping their medication to make it last longer, turning off the heater to save on electricity bills, and forgoing meals to make sure their children can eat.” 

While Jessica is grateful she had a support network, it would take her another two months of searching, dozens of inspections and what felt like an endless pile of rental applications before she was able to land another place.

She’s candid about why: “It is way overpriced, that’s the simplest way I can put it.”

“If I fit the ‘easy’ sort of criteria to rent to and I can’t find a place, how the bloody hell is anyone else supposed to have a chance?” she says.

“What do you do if you have … a kid, or a dog, or you’re on welfare?”

Moving away isn’t that simple for everyone

Amid a tightening rental market and growing costs, the prospect of moving somewhere more affordable is often easier said than done.

Lena and her family have lived in the same Adelaide suburb for the past nine years, but recently they were told their rental was being put up for sale.

They currently pay $505 per week, but that’s “largely because the place is very run down”, Lena says. To secure a different property in the same area, they’re looking at an increase of more than $200 per week.

She’s not sure the price difference is sustainable, but moving means they would be outside their children’s school catchment zone. At the same time, their utilities have risen from $117 to $233 per fortnight.

“If we have to pay that much in rent, it doesn’t leave much. We’re having to delve into our savings,” says Lena, who is a nurse.

To make matters worse, Lena and her family have found themselves in limbo: after months of stress, their rental property was taken off the market in the last couple of weeks.

The Skyline of Adelaide looking south
According to CoreLogic’s quarterly rental review, released in July, Adelaide recorded its biggest quarterly growth in rents since records commenced in 2005.(ABC News: Chris Moon)

While it’s given them a bit of breathing room, they’re not sure if the property will be re-listed. They could cut their losses and try to find a new rental for peace of mind, but they’ll be forced to break lease and pay two rents.

“If [my kids] can have a really good education and they love going to school, then I’ll do anything I can,” Lena says of the future.

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