It’s a bright, frosty morning in Sydney, and I’m walking down a leafy avenue, cheery sandwich boards pointing me towards my destination. I arrive at an unremarkable yellow-brick house, a large flag billowing in its front yard. A crowd is gathering on the lawn: people in exercise clothes clutch children, prams, dogs and takeaway coffees. Like them, I’m here for a special occasion. Today is auction day.
Saturdays in Sydney have long been a time for team sports, but in recent years a more unconventional pursuit has joined the mix: property auctions. This weekend, 665 are taking place. Sydney has seen a property boom in the past decade: from 2012 to 2017, house prices increased by 75%. Auctions – the means by which most houses and flats are sold here – have become a spectator sport, drawing Sydneysiders in their masses.
I say spectator sport, because most attendees at auctions are there to gawk rather than bid. Some are local residents, curious to see inside neighbours’ homes and find out how much their own house may be worth. Others just have nothing much else to do. A further lot, like me, are on reconnaisance. I live in a rented home with my partner and two girls, aged one and four. We’re on the lookout for something modest – a hovel would do. This weekend, I’m testing the waters. My friends make bashful offers to join me. Any excuse to go to an auction.
I wander into a pretty two-bedroom terraced house in Annandale, a suburb with Victorian homes and wide streets, where your neighbours might work for the national broadcaster and drive Volkswagen Golfs. The average price for a two-bed home here is A$1.5m ($1.1m), comfortably above the Sydney average. Number 104 is small, just 3.4 metres wide. Estate agents hover in the living room, offering bidding packs to people. Couples whisper to each other: “They’ve already gone up” (local slang for “the attic has already been converted”); “Floorboards are in good nick”; “Backyard needs work.”
There must be 50 people here for the auction. The auctioneer calls for a starting price and we all stare poker-faced, occasionally stealing glances at other people here. Eventually a middle-aged man in a polo shirt casually raises his bidding card. Another man bids against him and the price creeps up: A$1.21m, A$1.215m, A$1.22m. Then a smartly dressed woman with greying blonde hair bids an extra A$30,000. “Go mum!” shouts her daughter. Her son paces up and down, giving updates to someone over the phone: “Mum’s killing it.” His mum rocks from heel to heel as she continues to trump the male bidders. Then, the slap of a hammer on a binder: she’s won. As she hugs her daughter, the crowd cheers and then disperses. After all, there are 664 other auctions to attend.
So it’s off to Lewisham, where we wait patiently outside another house. The auctioneer arrives, bald and barrel-bodied in a tight suit. “Opportunity is knocking very loudly indeed, ladies and gentlemen!” he thunders.
He calls for the first bid and is met with silence. Finally a man speaks up: “A$1.5m”. Everyone gasps. So low! People start laughing nervously. Will another bidder pipe up and save the auction? There’s a sense of relief when a rival materialises. Slowly, the two men creep towards a final sum: A$2.1m. It’s like watching a heavily mediated tennis match.
It’s a bargain. Everyone knows it. “Two doors up,” says someone who lives on the same street. “That went for about A$2.8m a few months ago. It was a dump.” The crowd is in shock. “For the family, it’s such a loss,” says a mother to her daughter.
I, however, can’t help but feel excited. If property prices continue to fall, there’s a chance that my young family might just be able to afford a little home.