There are moments when the stresses of work or sitting in peak hour traffic get too much and the dreams of escaping to an early retirement in the bush or by the ocean start to seem vaguely real and attainable. In fact, they can become economically viable.
Such are the pressures on city dwellers – financial, emotional, practical – that AFR Weekend has decided to test the dream of early retirement by setting detailed criteria to pinpoint 10 of the best places to retire young and still have some money in the back pocket to live life well and take the annual trip to Europe.
We commissioned CoreLogic to look at every council area in Australia and identify where 50 per cent or more of the population is over 50 years of age. That was important to make sure there was some sense of like-minded community in the area. We also wanted some capital growth to make people feel comfortable that the wealth they might invest in their retirement asset isn't going to slide away like sand under their feet.
Property analysts Urbis refined the locations down to areas that would suit people in higher-income bands, offer good medical and hospital facilities within reasonable distance, good nearby transport connections and be just a one-to-three-hour drive from a capital city. The coffee might even be cheaper there too. and the house much more affordable than in a bustling city hub.
In some instances, we have considered that community is essential. Stockland chief executive of retirement Stephen Bull says independent modelling and research by Grant Thornton identified that retirees living in socially inclusive, healthy and well-connected villages tend to enter aged-care five years later than the average "empty nesters" living an arguably more isolated life in their family home. However, our selection also includes places such as Kangaroo Island. Such places suit many of the criteria, but are more isolated and rely on the retiree taking a punt on living in a beautiful but slightly remote area.
The appeal of living in a more isolated but beautiful area comes with a warning. Frasers chief executive Rod Fehring says he has found that lifestyle destinations tend to be quite volatile investments and people who were originally attracted by the dream of walking on the beach as dawn breaks, casual dinners on a deck with friends and family and other images of perfection promoted by the development fraternity, do not play out that way.
"The friends-and-family presence diminishes over a relatively short period of time; the beach walks become less frequent as rising at dawn makes for a long day," he points out.
CoreLogic's Tim Lawless says it's not surprising to see some people bringing forward their retirement, particularly those home owners who have owned a property in Sydney or Melbourne for at least seven years.
"Dwelling prices have almost doubled in Sydney since 2009 and in Melbourne they are up 78 per cent. People who own a home within the blue-chip areas of Sydney or Melbourne could sell their long-held properties, which, for many, will hold a great deal of equity, and buy into any of these coastal markets for a substantially lower amount. Many would have plenty of spare funds left over, which may help to fund an early retirement or scaled-down working commitment."
So now you have the confidence as well as the economic excuse to explore our 10 best places to escape early.
MERIMBULA, BEGA VALLEY, NSW
Along the rugged Sapphire Coast of NSW lies a cosy town called Merimbula. It is a favourite weekend escape for Canberra residents and has become the retirement place for accountant Jenny Thorp and her policeman husband Andy.
"I struggle with Canberra," Jenny Thorp says. "Merimbula is smaller and you get to know more people here – it's a bit more friendly here."
Set in the lush Bega Valley where house prices have increased 15.4 per cent in the past five years, Merimbula is known for its rock oysters and laid-back lifestyle but there are some very fashionable houses and the town is a 20-minute drive to the new Bega Hospital.
"We bought here about three years before we actually retired and just rented it out while we made plans to move. We took our time," Jenny explains.
They didn't sell their Canberra house but let one of their children have it instead. Their savings still allowed them to buy a $650,000 three-bedroom home in Merimbula with views of the ocean. It was their ideal pick because it was on one level and a short walk from the centre of town.
"We like to have a drink and wanted to be able to walk back after dinner."
According to CoreLogic, the Bega Valley median house price is only $420,144, making it more than affordable for someone selling up in the city to live at the coast and still have cash in the pocket. Of course, there are some beautiful homes for sale in the area with much higher price tags. Eve O'Brien Properties has just listed a three-bedroom, three-bathroom home at 26 Dolphin Cove Drive with an asking price of $1.15 million. It's a quiet area with exceptional ocean views and easy access. "It's a unique opportunity to have a national park and ocean frontage at your doorstep," Ms O'Brien says.
STANTHORPE, SOUTHERN DOWNS, QUEENSLAND
Apples, wineries and even a little bit of snow, yes snow. Queensland's Stanthorpe in the Southern Downs sits on the Granite Belt famed for rich soils, and is an ideal rural retirement destination. About two hours' drive from the Gold Coast, the area offers dozens of real estate opportunities for people who are looking for a grand-old Queenslander and a vineyard as their escape valve from city work life.
Don't expect massive capital gain but be comfortable in the knowledge that you won't see a crash in prices. The Southern Downs region has delivered a steady 4.7 per cent growth during the past five years.
Former sales and marketing manager for sewing machine company Janome, Trevor Sharp and his wife Carrol sold their two apartments in Melbourne more than 10 years ago and semi-retired at Stanthorpe on a 29-hectare property called Moonrise. It has a winery and guest house and the couple have since added a Cellar Door.
"I couldn't go and live back in the city now – here I wake up to the sound of birds not buses," Mr Sharp says. "But I also don't like the humidity and so we chose Stanthorpe because it's one part of Queensland where you don't get humidity – its about 800 metres above sea level here."
Stanthorpe has had its share of snow too, which can seem baffling to southern migrants.
Unfortunately, there is illness in the Sharps' family and so the couple now need to sell and move interstate. Ray White Rural Queensland's Peter Douglas is marketing Moonrise and expects it could fetch about $1 million. There are plenty of other bargain opportunities to live near the historic town.
"There are a lot of areas to 'retire young' in the Southern Downs but the standout town we see is Stanthorpe," Ray White principal Jez McNamara says. "The region is noted for stunning scenery, wineries, olive groves, apple and stone fruit production and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The area is popular for weekend trips and we see early retirees not necessarily wanting to sit on their hands and do nothing, so they tend to buy small businesses such as cottage accommodation or small boutique vineyards."
NOOSA, NOOSA HEADS, QUEENSLAND
Noosa is regarded as one of Australia's most exclusive holiday destinations, but despite the porches and penthouses and the restrictive development rules in the area, it actually offers some real value in terms of prices for those wanting a warm coastal retirement. That's despite the fact the median house price in the Noosa Council area is $614,597 – about $5000 above the national average. It's the home of plenty of wealthy self-employed people, from futures traders and fund managers to retired tennis players such as Pat Rafter.
It's also probably one of the busier escape paradises; , if you're driving through the fashionable clamour of Hastings Street during summer, expect to be locked up in a traffic jam that's more reminiscent of Sydney CBD peak hour.
Tom Offermann Real Estate has seen plenty of wealthy professionals head to Noosa for retirement, buying the top-end houses along the canals or on the beachfront. "Noosa is an ideal retirement area because of it's amenable climate providing four distinguishable but non-extreme seasons," he says. "There's a variety of beautiful beaches, lakes, rivers, golf courses, and parks to enjoy; it's well serviced with medical and shopping; and it has a relaxed feel quite distinct from capital cities where a lot of our retirees come from."
The over-50s cohort, who now make up 46 per cent of the population there, regularly replace the car keys with shoes, or even a small boat for trips along the canals where disembarkation can land you right in the heart of the action. It helps that house prices have also bounced in Noosa. They are up 19 per cent in the past five years after recovering from the big hit they took during the financial crisis. Offerman is marketing a prime four-bedroom home at 11 Seafarer Court, Castaways Beach, which he expects could sell for $1.15 million. The property has views of both the hinterland and ocean, and offers light sea breezes.
ST HELENS, BREAK O'DAY, TASMANIA
Roy and Libby Pemberton sold their four-bedroom duplex in Gold Coast for $380,000 in July. Roy was a retired small businessman and Libby worked for a mining services company. Both wanted somewhere different to grow old in.
"The crime rate was exceptionally high and it was not a friendly area for the retired, unless you were very, very wealthy," Libby Pemberton says. "And to be honest, the ones that are very, very wealthy – they're not our type of people any way. We're very friendly and open and share everything."
Their two adult children live in Melbourne and the couple at first looked around regional Victoria, but weren't satisfied. "We looked at Bendigo, we looked at Echuca, we looked at Ballarat, but none of them really felt like home," Libby says.
They hadn't planned on Tasmania, having left the island during the recession of the early '90s, never intending to return. But a trip back to the island changed their mind. In September, they settled on a three-bedroom house in St Helens, on Tasmania's east coast, for $280,000. The 1200-square-metre block came with house and an established vegetable garden in good nick.
"We didn't have to do a thing," Roy says.They grow much of their food and barter with neighbours.
"We actually live in a Disney movie. In the garden, little blue birds are flying around me," Libby says. "It sounds corny, but it's so true."
They are a 600-metre walk from St Helens shops, there is a local hospital in town, the Royal Flying Doctor is a few kilometres up the road and Launceston – with a bigger hospital, and airport access to Melbourne – is two hours away. St Helens is the largest town in the Break O'Day local council area which includes Binalong Bay and the Bay of Fires. As many as 53.3 per cent of the population is over 50. And while home values have fallen – they're down 7.5 per cent during the past five years – the 6.6 per cent jump in the past 12 months suggests the Pembertons aren't the only ones to have recently discovered the value of the area with its median house price of just under $248,000.
"It's a very laid-back lifestyle here," says LJ Hooker agent Nereda Ball. "We don't even have a stop sign in our town."
QUEENSCLIFF, BELLARINE PENINSULA, VICTORIA
Jim Allen, now 72, paid $750,000 for his sandstone cottage in Queenscliff, on Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula, 12 years ago. It was always the intention of the founder of the Compleat Angler and Flyfisher retail outlets, to retire there.
"It started as one day a week and extended to two, three days a week, now it's six or seven days. I still like to come up to Melbourne for a day a week. I'm looking for a studio apartment in Port Melbourne," Allen says.
He's bound to find something affordable, having sold the historic Tavistock House in Melbourne's Flinders Lane in November for $7.9 million – he paid $600,000 for it in 1993. Proximity to Melbourne, where the single Allen retains close friendships and is involved with the Melba Opera Trust for young opera singers, is the reason he chose Queenscliff over a town like Peterborough further west on the Great Ocean Road.
"I like the idea of having access to a big city. I like a big city culturally. Melbourne is a wonderful city."
Australia's top 10 places in which to take the equity in your city home and find a new place to call home. CoreLogic
But when he's not in the big city, he wants the village feel that Queenscliff gives.
"I didn't want life in a town where people go through. Queenscliff is out on a peninsula and apart from the ferry to Sorrento, it's not a go-through town. It has a charming Victorian influence," he says.
Queenscliff, like neighbouring Point Lonsdale, benefits from an easterly sea breeze that makes it several notches cooler in summer. "When Melbourne's sweltering at 95 degrees [fahrenheit, 35 degrees celsius] at 5pm, Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale are 20 degrees lower."
The area isn't a cheap retirement option, however. The median price is just over $770,000 and Allen says his three-bedroom home, an old ship captain's cottage, is now worth "considerably more" than what he paid for it. Prices have risen 2.4 per cent during the past year and Allen expects growth in Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale – "a hidden secret" – to outstrip growth on the other side of Port Phillip Bay in Portsea and Sorrento.
"I won't be surprised," he says, "to see the prices in Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale head towards Portsea prices as the years go by."
Fletchers real estate agents' Lee Botsios says the Queenscliff market offers plenty of options for early retirees looking for the beach lifestyle.
"For $1 million to $1.5 million you can get water views, three bedrooms, no stairs and between 500 and 700 square metres of land," Mr Botsios says.
Fletchers now has for sale a three bedroom two bathroom home at 23a Symonds Street with views overlooking Swan Bay for around $1.6 million.
FORSTER, GREAT LAKES, NSW
Fraser and Val Godfrey sold their $3 million, five-acre home in Dural, Sydney, and headed up for full retirement to Forster where they purchased a home for just under $500,000 last month. They still own their jewellery store business in Castle Hill, Sydney.
"We didn't want to pull too much money out of the business and we didn't need really need a big fancy house," Fraser Godfrey said. "We also wanted to escape the traffic of Sydney. It drives you crazy."
The couple, who retired late (Fraser was the national jewellery buyer for Prouds), used to frequent Forster in the 1970s and sail catamarans but their days of sailing are now past and they prefer to play golf, rather badly.
"It took us 12 months to work out where we wanted to live here. It takes less than four hours' drive to get here from Sydney," Fraser said.
They purchased their small three-bedroom, one-bathroom home through Alex Jacobs from JCL Real Estate after working out the perfect distance from everything they needed. They can walk half a kilometre to the Forster Tuncurry Golf Club, a kilometre to One Mile Beach and a kilometre to the Forster Tuncurry Medical centre. It's a green and lush area and sits on a peninsula with cool breezes. In the southern direction, a kilometre away, is the Stockland Forster shopping centre.
Property prices were also an attraction. Fraser says, "I couldn't have bought a cupboard in Sydney for the price we paid here."
The Great Lakes has seen 6.5 per cent growth in the past year and 17.1 per cent in the past three, which gives some confidence that the values will hold up. "I think there will still be good value growth."
The Great Lakes area also has the highest proportion of residents over 50 – about 56 per cent of the population – and that also increases the chances of building a new community of friends. "We don't know a lot of people here but there are a lot of people we can relate to – we share similar values," says Fraser. "That was different in Sydney."
BRIGHT, ALPINE, VICTORIA
In an area where the real estate market is subject to big seasonal influences, retirees provide some regularity to the market in Bright, in Victoria's Alpine local council region.
"We have retires knocking on the door month, in, month out," says real estate agent Gerard Gray. "They're the most consistent sector of our market."
Just over 50 per cent of Alpine's 11,800 people are over 50 and chances are they're not seeking a sedentary lifestyle. "A lot of retirees are coming up because they were skiers, or bushwalkers or mountain bike riders or road cyclists," Gray says. The area with a median price of $329,000 is 100 kilometres from the regional centre of Wodonga on the NSW border, but the town has its own medical facilities to support the residents.
"We've only got a small hospital but you can still get your carpal tunnel done," he says.
Many retirees move to Bright from a city like Melbourne, where they can sell their $1.2 million home, spend $600,000 on a new one in the gateway to Mounts Hotham and Buffalo and pocket the cash or use it to top up their super balances. But buyers don't come from only the city. Gray's own mother Felicity moved to the town, after 26 years of working in aged care in Finley, in the NSW Riverina.
"I was born in the Otway ranges in Victoria and I loved the hills," Felicity says. "Finley was as flat as. When I had a chance to shift over here I took it."
In December, Gray sold the house Felicity had built in Bright. There was only one other permanent resident at her end of the street – the other owners were all holiday-home owners – and she moved to a street with more people. But the buyer of Felicity's $550,000 home was a woman in her 50s from Victoria's Mornington Peninsula who wanted a holiday home.
It may sound odd for a person in one holiday hotspot to buy in another, but it's a common occurrence, Gerard says. "We see plenty from down that way. It's the exact opposite – it's so different to a beach scenario."
It's the second time around for Jeremy and Sandra Herdman. The Perth-based salesman and hospital worker have just paid $399,000 for a three-bedroom house on 10 acres in Toodyay (pronounced "two-jay'') 90 kilometres north-east of Perth, and they plan to move into it in the coming months.
Twenty-five years ago, when they had small children, the couple bought a house on a hobby farm in Bridgetown, three hours south of the WA capital. But while country living was fine with small children, by the time the kids headed to high school, the Herdmans realised they had to bite the bullet and move to Perth. But, says Jeremy, "We've always had this thought that when we came to retirement we'd still like to retire in the country. We're not really coast people."
The wheatbelt town that sits in a valley around the Avon River has a population of just over 4500 and nearly half of those – 2233 – were over 50 last year. One notable part-time resident of the town is WA premier Colin Barnett, who runs sheep on his property. Midland, 70 kilometres away, has newly completed public and private hospitals. Home values have held up in the area, too, with a negligible 0.1 per cent decline during the past 12 months – far better than Perth's 3.4 per cent fall.
Still, bargains can be had. The Herdmans got their house down from an asking price of $429,000. "We put in a cheeky offer and got it," Jeremy says. But with a median house price just above $356,000, the town remains cheaper than Perth, which still, despite the falls, had a median price of $490,000 in November.
"In 1990, you could sell in the city and buy here for one-third of the price, but it's slowly caught up. There's still a difference, but it's not as big," Toodyay real estate agent Tony Maddox says.
With their oldest child now in his mid-30s, the Herdmans are hoping the town will exert as much of an attraction on the family as Bridgetown did all those years ago. Only this time it will be more convenient. "You can live in Perth, come up to Toodyay for lunch and still go home in the afternoon. If you want to dump kids off for school holidays it's ideal," Herdman says.
VICTOR HARBOR, SA
Victor Harbor holds the distinction of being Australia's oldest town – nearly 60 per cent of its 15,000 residents are over 50. And they love it. Gael Tilbrook is on to her second Victor Harbor home. In May, Tilbrook bought a single-storey, three-bedroom home for $545,000 in the suburb of Encounter Bay.
A fall while on holiday in Santorini made the 71-year-old decide her existing three-level house with stairs wasn't the right place to be. She's hardly an invalid, however – the former executive director of the Australian Institute of Architects Victorian and South Australian chapters, as well as Engineers Australia's South Australian arm, plays competition tennis six or seven days a week.
The town's location on the southern side of the Fleurieu Peninsula, 90 minutes south of Adelaide, gives water views to the east and south, in contrast to Adelaide itself and its adjacent beaches, which only have water views to the west, and in full glare of the afternoon sun. But it is close enough to the SA capital that some people commute between the two.
Gael's husband John Olson does just that. He runs a civil engineering consultancy in Adelaide and stays in the flat they own in the inner eastern suburb of Dulwich on weekdays and joins her in Victor Harbor on weekends.
"He feels like he's been away for a week when he goes back on a Monday and I can access the city life any time I want," she says. Victor Harbor's median $358,000 price puts it $70,000 below the Adelaide median, which adds to its attraction for retirees, says Adelaide estate agent Tim Thredgold. "Seventy thousand dollars goes a long way in terms of paying membership fees at the bowling club or whatever it is that takes your fancy."
But one downside is that prices aren't rising. In fact, they fell over the past 12 months and are down 1.3 per cent over the past five years. Gael says she doesn't expect any capital growth in Victor – "the movement here's very slow, there's plenty of land around" – and that is one reason why she and John have held on to their flat in the city.
They sold their previous three-level Victor Harbor house for $562,000 in July, which was a gain on the $470,000 they had paid in 2008, but that growth only reflected the investment they'd made in carports, ducted air and amenities like dishwashers.
"You don't get any money in terms of capital gain," she says.
KANGAROO ISLAND, SA
Even the best-laid plans can go awry. Mick Lee and Liz Jones moved to Kangaroo Island in September after selling their property in Macclesfield, on SA's Fleurieu Peninsula and began looking for somewhere to buy. In November, they paid $560,000 for a house at Pelican Lagoon near American River, but they got more than they bargained for.
"We were downsizing from 45 acres (18.2 hectares) and just bought 134 acres!" the 69-year-old Mick says. It's not land that the retired TAFE horticulture lecturer has to work, however. "When the tide's in, 50 per cent of it is underwater and the rest of it is rock and scrub," he says.
Kangaroo Island, a 45-minute ferry journey from SA's Cape Jervis, is not everyone's retirement cup of tea. "People like their creature comforts," Yorkshire-born Mick says. "They're not here. There's one supermarket in Kingscote, one in Penneshaw and you have to pay a premium for lots of things. It all has to cover costs [of transport] from the mainland."
But with nearly half (48.6 per cent) of the island's 4600 people over 50, it is clearly drawing retirees. People like Mick want to avoid the higher-priced, faster-paced Victor Harbor, 100 kilometres away on the South Australian mainland.
"Victor Harbor's a busy place. It's huge. We don't want that. We want to get away from that, away from people," Mick says.
Elders real estate agent Colin Hopkins says the island is no different from other regional towns in that it has a well-equipped local hospital as well as helicopter access to connect critically ill patients with the major Adelaide hospitals.
Mick and Liz paid nearly double the island's median $289,000 price for their 1991 four-bedroom timber and limestone wall house. "The locals reckon it's too much," Mick says. "We reckon it's a bargain."
He also calculates prices – up 1.8 per cent over the past year and 8.2 per cent over the past five – will keep gaining. Not that he plans to sell. This is his last move, Mick says. "I'm either going somewhere where people have to wipe my arse, or in a box. I'm not intending going anywhere else."