We bought our first house close to a year ago, and I’m still recovering from the process.
I live in Sydney and house prices here are absolutely insane. Keen to get out of the vicious rental cycle I threw myself into the property hunt, search and kill (err I mean purchase).
I had my finances in order, my lease was about to expire and my two kids were ready to find new walls to draw on. What I wasn’t prepared for was the subversive politics involved in house buying and how much perception would play a part at auction.
You see, I’m a second generation Chinese Australian. My mother was born here, my grandparents had lived here for decades and decades. I feel Australian, I just didn’t look the part. And boy, did that become apparent during house inspections.
"The Chinese are here..." I heard a man mutter to his wife, rolling his eyes.
"Oh man, we are going to be renting FOREVER at this rate..." sighed another punter, her blonde curls bouncing in the sunlight.
"I totally feel you!" I wanted to say. "Who are all these bloody foreign investors pushing up the house prices?!" - oh wait... that's me?
I must've inspected anywhere between 20-30 properties during my mad search, and each suburb varied in their reception to my "foreign" face. My hunt centered around the Lower North Shore, an area that is traditionally known for being quite anglicized (think Mosman, Cremorne, Northbridge). My grandparents lived in Lane Cove for close to 50 years, and for a long time were the only Asian faces around. They also stereotypically owned the local Chinese restaurant. The recent influx of new apartment buildings (due to some smart council rezoning laws) has brought a flood of buyers of the "oriental" variety.
"My hunt centred around the lower North Shore." Image via iStock.
Agents on the whole are very happy to see me. "8 is such a great number to have on the portfolio" whispered one agent in my ear, referring to the address. Never mind the creeping damp up the walls, dark small windows and slopey backyard. I applaud the agent who went so far as to install two massive stone lions near the entrance of the door (the Chinese are very superstitious and lions bring good luck).
I get it. Buying a house is very competitive and you need to assess who your rivals are. I've probably made some snap judgements myself. "The baby boomer" couple, the "executive lifestyle" family, the "bachelor" buyer. However it is the "Chinese investor" that strikes fear in the heart of the average buyer.
Indeed there seems to be a whole discourse around the "Asian invasion" theory that perpetuates the Australian property market. Dallas Rogers says that "feigned housing identities that are based on "Asianness" are basically a myth. Negative gearing and domestic investors play a large part in driving up house prices - but it's harder to place a face on them. Demonizing the "other" foreign aspect seems to be more accepted. Henny Stier is a buyers agent at OH Property Group, and represents a considerable number of foreign investors. "There is a general perception that if you are Asian, particularly Chinese that you must have deep pockets. So that can be intimidating to other buyers if they think you are bidding with no limit. However, it can also be a disadvantage because if the selling agent or auctioneer knows the bidder is not fluent in English, they can use certain tactics to manipulate that bidder to keep bidding above and beyond what is necessary."
Last year a group even showed up to an auction in Chatswood with placards to protest "foreign ownership". The leader of the protest told Domain "most of these people at auctions look like they just came off the plane looking to buy a property." Wow. Did I look that disheveled that my weekend wear was mistaken for travel attire?
I was so determined to purchase a house I wasn't going to let this small perception issue get in the way. In fact I used it to my advantage. I strode around house inspection with an air of "foreign" confidence. I sniffed at the storage in the bedrooms, flicked the light switches on and off in the bathrooms, and ran the sink in the kitchen for a full minute. Scaring off a few punters couldn't hurt. It is a mind game, after all.
At the auction, my husband's relentless bidding scared any other prospects away until the end. At the eleventh hour, a man of Asian appearance dropped a price bomb out of nowhere. He could've been a bona fide "foreign investor." I'll never know. But I do know that we won that auction. And all our dollars were earned on home soil.