House prices in Byron Bay have risen, and investors are searching nearby instead.
It's a sunny Tuesday afternoon in early December, but in Brunswick Heads, a small coastal village that sits against a turquoise estuary, it feels more like a long weekend. A picturesque timber bridge connects the river to a surfing beach 10 kilometers south of Byron Bay.
A mixture of twenty-somethings and families spread out picnic blankets in the park, watching kayakers ride the high tide of the river out to the ocean. Indistinct conversation and laughter drifts from the beer garden of the local hotel, and people mill in and out of restaurants and antique shops.
It's easy to see why Eli Wood, a 33-year-old carpenter, wants to live in the Northern Rivers on the nearby Ocean Shores.
About a year ago, she looked around South Golden Beach, north of Brunswick Heads, to purchase, but she wasn't quite ready. "Now that I'm almost ready, in the past three to four months, prices have really skyrocketed," Ms Wood said.
It is the spillover effects of Byron Bay. Byron's property market is not only wildly competitive and pricey, but its crowded surf breaks, traffic congestion and busy streets have forced sea changers and vacationers to head to smaller coastal towns such as Lennox Head, Pottsville and Brunswick Heads.
Even these so-called 'quiet' villages, though, are now buzzing.
In the Northern Rivers, real-estate agents say their phones are ringing off the hook. The idle months of March and April are only a distant memory, in the midst of a lockdown and travel freeze.
"It's gone off its head in the last three months," says Peter Browning of LJ Hooker in Brunswick Heads.
The end of winter and the easing of the most extreme pandemic restrictions in the state coincided with a wave of people fleeing Sydney and moving north, many still on metropolitan incomes as they took advantage of remote work arrangements. More recently, Victorians fleeing Melbourne have joined them, as well as holidaymakers from all over the country. Given the recent big hurricanes, everyone seems to want a slice of a sleepy hollow surf.
A small three-bedroom cottage with a self-contained studio in Brunswick Heads failed to find a $1.5 million buyer this time last year. It sold for $1.7 million a few weeks ago.
The rental market was also tighter than ever, Mr Browning said. On a Friday night, his agency advertised a property and had received 400 inquiries by Monday morning and 53 requests by Tuesday, with an unsuccessful applicant offering an additional $200 per week.
It isn't difficult to see why. Property prices have been rising in Byron Bay for years, but the pandemic has gained momentum, and at a fraction of the rate, nearby towns offer a sunny coastal lifestyle.
Byron Bay's median house price is now north of $1.44 million, close to Sydney or Melbourne's trendy inner suburbs, rising 22.8% over the past year.
At 1,15 million dollars, it's slightly cheaper in nearby Suffolk Park.
Drive 30 minutes south to Lennox Head and you'll get less than $950,000 back from a traditional home, but that's a 44.7 percent improvement over five years ago.
Or travel north to Pottsville, where the median house price is $780,000, around half the Byron Bay price, but five years ago, a big leap from a standard home costing less than $500,000.
Unsurprisingly, discontent among locals struggling to find a place to live is increasing.
"It causes a lot of tension and a lot of anxiety," said Mr. Browning. "We have become a hotspot on Australia's entire east coast, and I don't say that lightly."
The main street of Lennox, lined with restaurants, cafes, stores, beauty spas and accommodation, runs parallel to the beach. Nick Bordin, of the department, said that half of all the properties listed by Elders are sold to buyers from outside the city. And the vacation accommodation was booked months in advance.
Recently, when they could not find any accommodation in Byron Bay, a couple from Melbourne stayed in town. They did not want to leave, as many people on holiday. Around $3.05 million was forked out by the couple for a bespoke five-bedroom home. "That property sold above expectations for $350,000," Mr. Bordin recalled.
The Northern Rivers' popularity poses the question: will these surfing towns soon shift beyond recognition and lose their low-key, relaxed character? Or just being beyond the scope of millionaires, like Byron Bay?
Mr Bordin said, "We live in a beautiful area; it's not a secret." You can't expect people, for the same reasons you do, not to appreciate it.
"If you really are so unhappy with it, you feel more comfortable cashing in and taking advantage of it and moving to somewhere."
While she doesn't own a cash-in house, Ms Wood is considering searching for her first home elsewhere.
"Prices are rising so much and many more individuals may want me to look for a quieter place to buy, where you can get more for your money."
She can only hope that not too many people have the same idea.