Australians are building larger homes and renovating more, thanks to COVID

The working-from-home boom is encouraging Australians to build bigger homes.

The working-from-home boom is encouraging Australians to build bigger homes. Photo: Getty

What happens when governments ask millions of Australians to work from home and only leave when absolutely necessary?

They build bigger homes, according to Commsec.

The stockbroking arm of Commonwealth Bank released new research on Monday showing the average size of a new house built in 2019-20 was 2.9 per cent larger than the previous year.

The largest annual increase in 11 years saw Australia reclaim the title as builder of the largest houses in the world, prompting economists at Commsec to ponder if it marked the beginning of a new trend.

For while Australia has routinely built some of the largest homes in the world over recent decades, the average size of new builds has trended downwards for the past seven years.

Home builders became more conscious of the environment and sought lower-maintenance homes that were cheaper to run.

Families had fewer children. People wanted to live closer to the city. And soaring property prices forced many to rein in their aspirations.

It was a perfect storm that saw the average size of new homes built in Australia in 2018-19 shrink to the smallest size in 17 years.

“But over the past year there appears to have been a perception that homes had shrunk a little too much,” Commsec economists Ryan Felsman and Craig James wrote in a note.

“The recent experience with COVID-19 has certainly caused more families to look for bigger homes and caused others to add extra rooms to existing homes.”

And separate figures appear to support this assertion.

Data from Commonwealth Bank, for example, shows credit and debit card spending on household furnishings and equipment in the weeks ending June 26 and July 3 was up 25 per cent and 51 per cent respectively on the same times last year.

Meanwhile, credit bureau illion’s weekly spending tracker – which is based on the anonymised banking transactions of 250,000 Australians – shows that, in the week ending November 1, Australians spent 59 per cent more on “home improvement” than they did during a normal week before the pandemic.

And home builders have also reported a significance increase in inquiries since the federal government announced its $25,000 HomeBuilder grants in June. Though modelling from Treasury shows the scheme will create far fewer jobs than anticipated.

So, how are people renovating their homes?

Renovation expert Cherie Barber said the pandemic had focused attention on home offices, as well as energy efficiency and connections to nature.

Duncan Eadie, owner of Victoria-based Cumberland Building and Maintenance, said renovators were focused on work spaces – noting that people were preferring to build “study nooks” connected to open-plan living spaces, rather than isolated home offices.

“There’s times when they need to be segregated, but people don’t want to be taken too much out of their own environment. They don’t want to be stuck in a shoebox looking at four walls,” he said.

“They want to be opening up into the back yard, or still be in the living room.”

Renovation expert Cherie Barber said she had observed a similar trend.

“They might be converting things like a linen closet to a home office space, a little nook like that, or they might just take one wall, like a dead zone, and make it into a home office,” she said.

“So [in the images below], I did one barn door where it slides across and it’s a really nice bookcase, and then you slide it back the other way and it’s a practical home office desk. They don’t need to be big.”

Before the renovation.

After the renovation, with the home office exposed.

After the renovation, with the home office hidden.

Her top tips for office renovators?

Check the wi-fi coverage in the space where you want to build the office, because the internet signal will not reach certain areas in masonry homes. And make sure it’s a space where you can easily rejig the electric lines.

“That’s pretty easy to do if you’ve got a timber stud wall,” she said.

“But if you’ve got say a masonry, like a double brick wall, it becomes a lot more difficult because then you’ve got to concrete-cut into your walls.”

Elsewhere, Ms Barber said higher energy bills caused by working from home had focused more attention on energy efficiency, while government restrictions on movement had encouraged home owners to incorporate more plants and nature.

“There’s a real trend going on at the moment of bringing the outside in,” Ms Barber said, noting that natural textures like timber were proving particularly popular.

“The colours are very earthy at the moment. So terracotta is very on trend, because it’s a colour that’s associated with dirt and earth.

“And definitely things like vertical gardens, and growing things like dwarf fruit trees on their balconies, just to bring that greenery back into their homes.”
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