Back in the day the wealth here was in the valuable red cedar plantations and gold mining. Now it’s a rich collection of creative minds, high-income corporates, luxury lifestyle offerings, healthy living and roaring real estate values.
Depending on which of the region’s 40+ townships in question, it is between 600 and 800 kilometres from the state’s capital city, Sydney.
It is impossible to not be impressed by the eclectic variety of experiences across the NSW Northern Rivers region.
From luxury resorts to backpacker’s huts, to kombi vans and Lamborghinis, from caviar to cannabis, beautiful beaches and rainforests, from world class restaurants to farmers markets.
Perhaps the biggest fascination is the much higher than normal ratio of (both) bare feet and mortgage-free homes.
This land of luxury is commonly referred to as the ‘Northern Rivers Region’ because it is a collection of townships in the far north of New South Wales with a lifestyle and economic profile which is shaped by a 4-river system (the Brunswick, Tweed, Richmond and Clarence rivers).
For the first 150-years post colonisation, the region was most famous for timber logging, dairy farming and a bit of gold mining.
Subsequent to the decline of those key industries, the region was a very underwhelming performer (economically and in real estate) for big patches during the 3-decades prior to the turn of this century.
To the great credit of local leaders of the time, a new economic growth strategy was then devised with the focus being on the region’s primary assets – its agricultural heritage, reliable water supply, the warm climate, a wide variety of beautiful natural landscapes and creative minds.
The beaches, rivers and national parks became centre pieces for unique tourism experiences. Significant investment was made in holiday accommodation options, retail amenities and a major airport upgrade.
While there are still some dairy farms in the region, the very fertile volcanic soils now support production of bananas, avocado, tropical fruits, macadamia, blueberries, beef, sugar cane and more.
The local produce and creative minds now produce all sorts of organic foods, boutique beverages, amazing restaurant experiences, lifestyle retreats and alternative health offerings.
A genuine niche has been created.
More recently, the NSW state government set a goal for the region to become Australia’s premier provider of goods and services in the specialised space of naturopathic health, which includes alternative health treatments, organic foods, supplements and natural remedies.
300,000 people now live in the six (6) municipalities that form the Northern Rivers region (Ballina, Byron, Clarence Valley, Lismore, Richmond Valley and Tweed).
The transformation has produced a boom in popularity which is reflected in statistics for the Ballina airport.
In 2021/22, the 530,000 passengers that passed through represented a 62 percent increase on a decade earlier and now ranks it the 16th busiest airport out of approximately 250 across Australia.
Whether by design or otherwise, this region’s model is one of low-volume and high-margin.
Over the last 10-years, the region’s population has increased at only half the rate of the national population (8.4 percent compared to 15.2 percent nationally).
But real estate values over the same period have blown the rest of Australia out of the water, primarily driven by the value of local incomes and contained housing supply.
Despite the lofty house prices, an overwhelming majority of the townships in the Northern Rivers region have a significantly higher portion of homes owned outright.
Greater than 4 out of 10 homes are owned outright in Ballina, Evans Head, Kingscliff, Kyogle, Maclean and Tweed Heads, and the ratio is even higher in Yamba (51 percent) and Iluka (53 percent). The national average is 31 percent.
The outstanding economic and recreational transformation has also produced an increase in the region’s age demographic.
Government has responded with a $1 billion investment in the region’s hospital infrastructure, distributed between Byron ($88 million), Grafton ($260 million), Lismore ($312 million) and Kingscliff ($534 million).
Located closer to Brisbane (160 klm) than the state’s capital (700 klm) and with a population of 46,000 people, Ballina is Australia’s 51st largest township.
It is central to many of the region’s townships, has quality infrastructure and a wide-range retail options.
Ballina is the primary service centre for the Northern Rivers region and was once the hometown of Hollywood actor, Simon Baker, and world record walker, Kerry Saxby-Junna.
The home of the ‘Big Prawn’, fishing is an important part of the local economy and recreation. The Naval and Maritime Museum is a popular tourist attraction.
Ballina’s population growth from internal migration over the 12-years ending 2021 was an impressive 10.6 percent, compared to Sydney’s net population decline of 4.8 percent.
A 65 percent increase in real estate values over the 5-years ending 2022 was a superior rate of capital growth than every capital city other than Hobart. Ballina’s median house value is now a pricey $1,150,000.
68 percent of Ballina households are families. One in 6 (or 17 percent) people in the workforce earn their income predominantly through working from home.
Just 15-minutes inland from Byron Bay is Bangalow. Its main street has some very popular cafes, restaurants and locally-grown produce.
While Bangalow only has 900 households, real estate is more expensive than every Australian capital city. The median house value is now $1.5 million and median rent is $900 per week.
The Brunswick River, beautiful sandy surf beaches and a protected rainforest border this small but popular holiday village just south of the Queensland border.
Highlighting the money that the Northern Rivers attracts, Brunswick Head’s $1.9 million median house value has not stopped 38 percent of the 1,000 households achieving outright ownership of their real estate.
From red cedar, gold mining, whaling and dairy farming in the 19th century to luxury resorts, gourmet food, world class entertainers and this nation’s most valuable real estate in the 21st century.
What’s not to like about clean beaches, a plethora of great food experiences, scuba diving, nearby rainforests and national parks, seaside views and farmers markets which showcase produce from throughout the region.
The most eastern point in Australia, this idyllic township is a magnet for people with money, luxury holidays and group booze-ups.
Among some of the high-profile people who have lived in Byron Bay are Paul Hogan, John Butler, Toni Childs, Elle Macpherson, Shelley Craft, Naomi Watts, Olivia Newton-John and Chris Hemsworth.
The natural attractions and umpteen holiday accommodation options support a year-round calendar of festivals for music, literature, food, films, triathlons and surfing.
Over the last 30-years, Byron Bay’s leanest real estate periods were two blocks of 6-years ending 1998 and 2013 when the median house value increased by just 25 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
In both bases, the national economy was soft and Byron Bay’s property market performance was reflective of the city’s economy having a high reliance on tourism (a discretionary household expense and the first to get chopped when belts need to be tightened).
Over the last 10-years, Byron Bay’s ability to attract high-income executives and celebrities to live there, even though many of them earn their income elsewhere, has built extra resilience into its property market.
27 percent of the Byron’s workforce (1 in 4 people with a job) predominantly work from home.
This high ratio is indicative of the lifestyle movement wherein a growing number of medium to high-income people employed in roles that rely on laptops as the main tool-of-trade are living the dream in their city of choice, even if that’s a different location to where the business is based.
Byron’s median house value was $110,000 this time 30-years ago, it peaked as high as $2 million in H1 2022, and recently slipped back to $1.6 million.
Property sales worth more than $5 million are common for this jewel in the Northern River’s crown.
Arguably, Byron Bay’s biggest challenge is finding a housing solution for the high volume of retail workers on modest incomes that are required to support the city’s popular tourism industry.
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Casino is located 1-hour inland from Ballina and adjacent to the Richmond River. With a population of 10,000 people and quality amenities, Casino is the primary service centre for one of Australia’s most productive beef provinces.
Home to a population of 2,900 people and located halfway between Yamba and Ballina is the coastal township of Evans Head. It is ideal for a quiet getaway involving fishing and swimming.
The median house value recently nudged past $1 million.
In the far south inland of the region and with a population approaching 20,000 is Grafton, the administration centre for the municipality of Clarence Valley.
Troy Cassar-Daly (country music legend), Tony Mundine (famous boxer), Tyrone Roberts (rugby league journeyman) lived in this regional city, where the current median house price is a very affordable $470,000.
Located 200 kilometres south of Surfers Paradise and at the mouth of the Clarence River is the popular fishing village of Iluka.
A population of just 1,800 that has 1,300 dwellings is a ratio indicative of holiday home lifestyle.
Drive 2-hours south of Brisbane and take a short detour off the Pacific Highway and you’ll find the idyllic, seaside holiday hotspot of Kingscliff and neighbouring communities of Casuarina, Chinderah, Fingal and Cudgen.
These five small towns are within 10-kilometre radius of each other and have a combined population of less than 20,000.
Real estate values increased by 100 percent over the last 5-years. The median house value is now $1.9 million and median rent is $900 per week.
In the hinterland and with a median house value of $500,000, Kyogle is township of 2,800 people surrounded by national parks.
Just 10-minutes from Ballina, one can perch themselves on the headland and observe the dolphins, whales and surfers, or go hang-gliding.
While the median house price in Lennox Head is a lofty $1.6 million, it is a popular location for raising families. 77 percent of households are families. 38 percent of properties are owned outright, and 24 percent are rented.
Through to the late 1950’s, Lismore was the largest urban centre in northern NSW, It has a strong agricultural heritage and is well-established commerce hub.
The subsequent decline of key industries, dairy and forestry, along with frequent flooding has meant that Lismore’s population growth has not been as strong as other northern NSW major regional cities such as Ballina, Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie.
That said, Lismore is still the second largest city in the Northern Rivers region. It will always be a city of considerable substance and a major service centre for communities in the north of the state.
With a Southern Cross University campus and the North Coast Institute of TAFE, Lismore has the best tertiary education facilities in the region.
Real estate values in Lismore outperformed most of Australia over the last decade, including 60 percent capital growth over the 5-years ending 2022. The median house price is $610,000.
Lismore is 1 of 144 Australian townships of substance where house prices tripled (or more) in value over the last 20-years, including 1 of 85 locations that outperformed Sydney and Melbourne over those 2-decades.
Situated at the foot of Mt Maclean and adjacent to the Clarence River, Maclean is a service centre for a productive sugar cane precinct.
The township’s proud Scottish heritage is evident from its retail offerings and tourist attractions.
63 percent of Maclean’s 1,270 households are occupied by families. The median house value is $690,000.
Mullumbimby is the primary administration centre for the Byron shire, located 20-minutes north-west of Byron Bay and at the foot of Mt Chinocogan.
Despite a modest population of just 3,600 people, it packs a powerful punch of cultural passion and a median house price of $1.1 million.
Within a beautiful rainforest setting, the community’s creativity is on full display through a variety of quality restaurants, live entertainment, cafes, whimsical art, farmers markets and nature experiences.
The 2016 Australian Beer of the Year, Stone & Wood, is brewed out of this inland location, adjacent to the Tweed River.
Murwillumbah is a strong rural community, producing sugar cane, dairy, bananas, tropical fruits and vegetables. The local produce is often on the menu of local cafes and restaurants that support the tourism trade.
Boasting a good lifestyle and a community with quality country-town values, 2 out of every 3 households in Murwillumbah are families.
The median house price of $800,000 and median rent of $600 per week.
Nestled in the hinterland, 1-hour inland from Byron, is the quaint town of Nimbin.
Often referred to as ‘Australia’s hippy capital’, the community enjoys a close connection with nature and has a strong social conscience.
Only 38 percent of households are families, while 31 percent of properties in Nimbin are rented.
The eclectic main street is frequented by tourists who enjoy the local crafts and food.
Relative to the rest of the region, real estate in Nimbin is a reasonably affordable. After 88 percent capital growth over the last 5-years, the current median house price is $700,000.
Proof that ‘big city’ has absolutely nothing to do with capital growth, this township of just 7,200 people produced an average annual capital growth rate over the last 20-years of 8.8 percent, superior to 7 out of 8 capital cities (Hobart being the only exception).
With a median house value of $1.2 million, Tweed Heads and its twin-town neighbour, Coolangatta, are loosely separated by the imagery line of the Queensland border.
Rugby league immortal, Wally Lewis, and world class surfers Joel Parkinson, Stephanie Gilmore, Mark Occhilupo and Mick Fanning resided in Tweed Heads.
The region is a feeder to the Gold Coast Titans (NRL) and Gold Coast Suns (AFL).
280 kilometres south of Brisbane, where the mouth of the Clarence River meets the Pacific Ocean is Yamba, a town that typifies the Northern Rivers region in more ways than one.
The warm weather, relaxed coastal lifestyle, and good restaurants that attract the year-round tourist trade are just as appealing to retirees who can’t wait to escape big city stresses.
The attractions and amenities offered by each of the aforementioned townships are within a 90-minute drive, while the Ballina airport provides a quick connection to the rest of Australia.
Yamba’s popularity from the retiree demographic is such that the median household age increased from 51 in 2006 to 57 in 2021.
5 out of every 10 households in this township of 6,400 people own their home outright, compared to the national average of 31 percent.
But there’s a price to pay for ‘lifestyle perfection’.
Yamba’s median house value doubled over the last 5-years (3-times Sydney’s 30 percent capital growth rate), meaning it now costs $880,000 to buy a standard house, or $600 per week to rent one.
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