Why Aucklanders are looking to move to Whanganui

The cat is well and truly out of the bag about Whanganui.

15 February 2021

Historic Bayly House at 45 Bell Street, City Centre, Whanganui

There’s no doubt Whanganui is one of the regional towns getting a lot of attention right now, as mature house owners in the big cities cash up and come for the low-cost lifestyle, while first home buyers look for other more affordable options in the provinces.

With a great culture and art scene, superb beaches, plus homes at least half the price of those in Auckland or Wellington, what’s not to like?

According to local agents in the market, a three bedroom, one bathroom home will set you back about $400,000 to $500,000, depending on location and the shape it’s in. A lifestyle property will range between $900,000 and $1.2 million, and a newly built house and land will be around $740,000.

The Trade Me Property’s House Price Index for December 2020 saw Manawatū/Whanganui rise 22% in price growth, to an average asking price of $495,000, the second highest growth rate in the regions after Gisborne.

Like many popular provincial towns, the number of homes for sale is lower than buyers would like, but Whanganui does have room to expand. Stats NZ noted recently that the town’s building consents for new homes in Whanganui were up around 8.6% in the December 2020 quarter.

Whanganui’s growing population

Whanganui’s population is growing, albeit from a small base. The town has seen an increase in population from 45,309 to 48,100 in the last three years.

Locals complain they can’t quite depend on parking directly outside their store or business anymore but it’s still a “ten minute” town. In other words, it takes ten minutes to get anywhere.

Property Brokers branch manager, Ritesh Verma, says Whanganui was originally built to grow into a bigger town. Established in the 1840s, at the mouth of the Whanganui River, the town, the ancestral home to Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi hapu, was an adjunct town to Wellington. It became a city in 1924 when it was the country’s largest urban area after the four main centres.

And while it grew into a good-sized provincial town, it’s never fulfilled that big town potential. But it does have the wide streets and big old buildings of an important early city.

“The city’s got space and character and it’s got a great community vibe,” says Mr Verma.

“It’s quite old school, people wave and chat. You might be out at dinner and you’ll know half the people in the restaurant,”he says.

And the town is very centrally located, say the city’s fans. An hour and a half to Tongariro National Park for skiing, 50 minutes to Palmerston North, 2.5 hours to Wellington and an hour’s flight to Auckland (or five hours’ drive).

And the climate is very temperate, says Mr Verma. “We don’t get to extravagant temperatures of 35 degrees, the peak of summer would be high 20s maybe 30, and in winter there would be around two or three frosts a year,” he says.

Whanganui’s affordability makes it attractive to small business owners

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and small business owners are moving to the region. They’re attracted by the affordable lifestyle that allows them to expand their business which they couldn't do in other cities, says Jonathan Sykes, strategic lead for brand and events at economic development agency, Whanganui & Partners.

Mr Sykes notes that the city is the home of some medium to large businesses. As well as the Whanganui District Council and the District Health Board, the Suzuki NZ headquarters is in Whanganui.

People moving to the town are often discovering the area while on a visit for an event or a break away. Whanganui’s annual tourism growth is the strongest in the entire country, says Mr Sykes. In the first month or so of 2021 there has been Opera Week, Vintage weekend, the New Zealand Masters Games, and the Sound Valley music festival and Artists Open Studios will be next.

“They come for a few days and think, “I quite like this,”” says Mr Sykes.

What’s the Whanganui real estate market like?

So what’s the market like for house hunters? Speaking to agents in Whanganui, they’re rushed off their feet. Most houses are only lasting for 10 to 15 days on the market, says Harcourts’ agent, Sue Ellis.

“There are a lot of cash deals, it’s never been a better time to sell,” she says.

Ms Ellis has been amazed at how much prices have gone up, but realises they’re still affordable for buyers coming from other cities. For instance, 18 months ago you could buy a new build house and land for $480,000, and now it’s $740,000.

“It’s crazy, I would say most agents are finding it difficult to put a price on a house. It’s whatever you think, and then put another hundred thousand on,” she says.

Inside the Historic Bayly House

A lot of Whanganui houses sit on 800 sq ft of land or more, so investors are buying old houses, moving them back on the site and building more.

Ms Ellis is selling a commercial and apartment property in central Whanganui and her suggestion to buyers is that they convert it into all apartments. This would appeal to empty nesters coming to Whanganui, locals and out of towners.

“A lot of babyboomers want to be in town and will pay good money so they can walk everywhere. Whanganui’s not flush with apartments like the main cities,” says Ms Ellis.

Kim Ahern, an agent with Bayleys, says CBD living is very affordable in the city. A nice small renovated home on a freehold site would currently be $400,000 which she admits doesn’t seem like a lot, but the locals are horrified.

She’s happy with the volume of listings coming on. “We’ve got all sorts, big, small, new and old.”

Springvale, where some of the new housing is coming on, is another good location to look, says Ms Ahern. It has new and old housing, and a mixture of amenities. “It’s got a great shopping centre and it’s only three minutes’ drive to the CBD,” she says.

The Property Brokers team is working hard to get a variety of homes out, says Mr Verma, from character homes, to brick and tile houses built in the 1990s, cottages, new builds, units and townhouses.

You’ve got lots of different locations to choose from. As well as the inner city, another handy spot is College Estate. College Estate is an area of homes surrounding Whanganui Collegiate School, which were built between 1910s to1930s. They’ve got lots of character, says Mr Verma.

The Whanganui lifestyle that Aucklanders like

Why are Aucklanders moving to Whanganui? Former Aucklander and manager of the Ray White Whanganui office, Philippa Ivory, says it takes 11 minutes to get to work from her lifestyle property. She has one stop sign and no traffic lights on the journey.

“I live way out in the country and drive down three roads to get to work, one along the river, it’s a beautiful drive past and there’s one stop sign and no traffic lights.”

There were always things happening in Auckland but the problem was getting to them, she says.

“Here you can do everything,” says Ms Ivory who used to live in Titirangi and worked in east Auckland.

68 Ingestre Street, City Centre, Whanganui

“I’m going to see (comedian) Bill Bailey in March at the Royal Wanganui Opera House, I’ll be able to pull up and park maybe 20m away and at half time, I’ll walk across the road to the bar for a drink.”

“Whanganui has a lot going on,” says Ms Ivory. “Honestly, I consider the lifestyle blissful.”

And she’s not the only one. A growing hub for musicians, Stan Walker now lives in the city and a number of others, says Mr Verma, who adds Whanganui has been named NZ’s prettiest city in a poll last year.

So who’s buying?

Since January, buyers from Auckland, Tauranga, Kāpiti Coast and Wellington have all been figuratively waiting at the door, says Ms Ivory.

“Buyers are a complete mix, people wanting every form of housing, from a modest home to beach, lifestyle to big houses in the suburbs.”

The millennials love the 1970s homes, she says.

Buyers will fly down from Auckland to view properties. Air Chathams has flights into Whanganui three times a day from Auckland, says Ms Ivory. She used to commute north when she first moved back from Auckland to the town she grew up in. It was painless, an hour’s flight and they give you a cup of tea and a Tim Tam, she says.

Ms Ellis is helping “people who want to get out of the rat race,” buy homes. In her experience, most of the out of town buyers are coming from Auckland.

“They’re in the 50 and over age group, they’re cashing up and looking at the bigger picture for retirement and lifestyle.” And they’re buying the same home for half the price in Whanganui.

Wellingtonians, meanwhile, are coming too – they’re families and artists looking for somewhere more affordable, and the lifestyle, says Ms Ellis.

“Expats too are coming back too, they’ve got roots here, coming back from the UK and bringing their families,” she says.

A number of the buyers always gravitate towards the nearby beaches, Kai Iwi and Castleclliff, which have a mixture of million dollar homes and more affordable properties as you come back toward town in the $350,000 and $400,000 price range.

“The beaches are fabulous. Castlecliff has to be one of the most inexpensive beach locations in the world,” says Ms Ahern.

Most people selling, meanwhile, are either upsizing or downsizing, not a lot are leaving, says Mr Verma. “Other than for work purposes, most people are staying in the community,” he says.