Leaving Auckland to live in the provinces was the best decision we ever made

Three families who left the City of Sails for a fresh start share the highs and lows of their decision.

The headline was in bold, 54-point type. ‘Leaving Auckland for the regions a smart move’ it announced on the front page of a recent Sunday newspaper.

The story went on to explain why escaping from New Zealand’s largest city was a good idea: more affordable houses, less congested roads, fewer people ruining the view… you get the idea.

Clearly, someone was listening: figures show that between the 2008 and 2013 censuses, 32,184 people left the City of Sails for greener pastures. What’s more, a recent survey revealed one in three Aucklanders (32.2%) had considered moving away in the past two years, mainly because of house prices. A further 36% admitted they hadn’t considered the option but thought it was a good idea.

And who can blame them? Auckland is now considered the fourth least-affordable housing market in the world.

We spoke to three families who turned their backs on the big smoke in search of a better quality of life, to find out how they made the transition.

Moving to Napier meant Stuart and Sarah could expand their family, and they say they’ve been made to feel very welcome by their neighbours.

To Napier

It was a second child that did it. Auckland born and bred couple Sarah and Stuart Jones say they could never have afforded to have number two if they’d remained in Auckland, or for Sarah to be a stay-at-home mother.

Instead, in 2014 Sarah, 38, and 43-year-old Stuart decided to up sticks for Napier. Two years later, their daughter Gala was born, a sister for six-year-old Coco.

“It wasn’t the only reason we left Auckland, but we were very keen to have another child and if we’d stayed, that would have meant saving for at least two years to be able to take maternity leave,” says Sarah, who previously worked as an account manager.

“And forget being a stay-at-home parent in Auckland with a big mortgage and higher living costs.”

It wasn’t as though the couple were unhappy in Auckland: Stuart’s family is based there and they both had friendships and connections with deep roots. Having met through work, in 2009 Sarah and Stuart, a trained chef who’d segued into the wine industry, bought a four-bedroom villa in Glenfield on the North Shore.

“Within the first year, we got engaged, married and pregnant with Coco, so although we started renovating, we didn’t get very far,” says Stuart.

The couple were halfway through stage two of the renovation in 2014 when they realised they wanted to shake themselves out of their routine, which included having another child. It wasn’t hard to pick a new location: Stuart had lived in Napier while studying wine-making a decade earlier, and they both had friends there.

“Every time we visited Hawke’s Bay, we never wanted to leave. We love the climate, the creative culture and the wine region. What we love more is not having to spend two hours a day in traffic!”

And so, despite the reservations of friends who urged them to rent out their Auckland home while they tested the waters in Hawke’s Bay, they put their house on the market. It sold within four weeks.

“I think people secretly thought we were mad selling up, because of Auckland’s crazy housing market and how difficult it would be to buy back into it,” says Sarah.

“But we wanted the equity to do other things such as travel, and we felt if we held onto the Auckland house, it would have been too easy to go back – and we really wanted to commit to a change.”

In Napier, the couple took their time finding a house to purchase, renting a semi-rural property for nine months while they searched, amazed at what their Auckland equity could buy.

“We ended up with a better house in a better neighbourhood for less money! There are fewer rental properties near us than we had in Auckland and it feels much safer.”

Although it’s the same size as their previous home, the 1920s bungalow is in far better condition, freshly painted inside and out, with a new bathroom and sea views.

“We’re really happy with where we bought; we’re close to everything and our neighbours are fantastic,” say Stuart. “But best of all, we’ve got a much smaller mortgage.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. The winery Stuart was working for went into receivership and Sarah found it hard to secure part-time work.

“It can be hard to find work in the provinces and you have to be incredibly creative,” she says.

“I ended up creating my own job by pitching a role to my previous employer, Paneton Bakery, where I work on their social media between six and 14 hours a week.”

Although Stuart has found a new job and Coco is settled in a good school with a small student-to-teacher ratio, Sarah admits the transition had its moments.

“It can take a long time to establish networks and friendships in a new place and you really have to work at it,” she says.

“I go for coffee every day and chat to anyone and everyone – that’s how I met my best friend in Auckland, so I figured it was a good place to start.

“Fortunately, our new neighbours have been a dream; for example, the other night we were out for an evening walk and they offered us a fresh crayfish. When does that happen in a big city? Everyone here has vege gardens or chooks and they offer up their excess produce. In return I give them jam made from their fruit or the baking I do for work.”

In fact, the only awkward situation the couple have encountered is when a friend told them about a neighbouring house that had just sold.

“She said, ‘Don’t worry, the new owners are locals, not Aucklanders!’ But it didn’t bother us – we just laughed it off.”

Although not having family and friends to help with a newborn was hard, the couple can count on one hand the things they miss about their former home.

“The beaches, a variety of ethnic food and our daughters’ access to their grandparents,” says Stuart. “And also our friends, but they come to visit a lot.

“Having a smaller mortgage has given us the freedom to do more, and next year we’re off to Spain for a while, which we definitely wouldn’t have been able to do if we’d stayed in Auckland.”

To read about other families who’ve left Auckland for a fresh start in a smaller town in New Zealand, see the latest issue of NEXT magazine, out now.

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