What is a splashback? Buying in to Nightingale Housing

After attending an info session about Nightingale Housing I found myself searching for accounts of other buyers, trying to figure out if the whole thing was an elaborate scam or legit. But the buyers were silent, or private (I do miss the era of blogging) and all I could find were borderline puff pieces about how revolutionary and stunningly architectural it all was. So here is my account.

In June this year a friend mentioned Nightingale Housing to me. They happened to have the last info session for one of their new buildings, Parklife, that week, so I went along with a friend (my trusty real estate encourager). A few weeks later the deadline for the ballot closed. And a couple of weeks after that I got a phone call offering me my second choice in the ballot. So for me it all happened in about two months, although some people have followed NH for years and ballotted multiple buildings without any luck.

The promise, or premise, of NH is "triple bottom-line" housing: financially, socially and environmentally sustainable. Broadly speaking, this means:

  • Mid-rise inner city apartment buildings with architect design, centred in Brunswick
  • Energy efficient building design (Minimum 7.5 star NatHERS thermal rating)
  • Owner-occupier expectations

In practice:

  • Purchase via a ballot process
  • 20 year resale restriction (or covenant)
  • No car parking (sites are close to several PT options and provide ample bike parking)
  • No ensuite bathrooms
  • Communal laundry (no individual laundries)
  • Communal rooftop spaces - garden, meals, play
  • Above-average allocations for social housing, and priority ballot for "key workers" (teachers, nurses, etc)

I haven't mentioned here that they are "affordable", because I don't know enough to really evaluate that. There are certainly cheaper options on the market in a similar area, that are similarly specced in terms of size, and they generally come with a carspace. But that is housing stock from pre-NatHERS-requirements, so they probably have thermal ratings of like...1? Where 0 is a tent, and 10 is you literally never need a heater or fan to be comfortable all year round. The NatHERS website says, "Heating and cooling is responsible for the majority of the average Australian household’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions." According to this site (https://restwell.com.au/energy_rating.shtml), "Houses built in 1990 averaged about 1 star on the NatHERS scale. Before the introduction of national energy efficiency regulations for houses in 2003, less than one per cent of Australian houses achieved 5 stars." The minimum for new developments is now generally 6 stars.

I am not sure the NatHERS rating has really caught on as a data point to evaluate in buying a place, but for me I think this is incredibly valuable. My NH building is targeting 9 stars, which is... swoons I extremely love that I won't have an aircon. They are miserable things.

Back to affordability. I guess the test would be, if a commercial non-NH builder built the same thing, how much would they sell it for? And that's a thing I just don't know how to evaluate. And also, surely affordability is about a comparison to average incomes, rather than cost of goods? Dunno. I'm in a privileged position, having saved a decent deposit thanks to a generous salary working in software.

While reading about the risks of buying an apartment off the plan and how to evaluate real estate options, one comment that stuck with me was along the lines of: The real benefit of having a mortgage is the enforced saving. At the end of 20-30 years, you'll have an investment, and along the way you'll have had your own stable home. So if you are not buying a place as an investment, it doesn't greatly matter if what you're buying is the absolute best deal.

The owner-occupier expectations are significant, IMO. Firstly, buildings targeting investors don't care if the apartments are actually shittily designed, small bedrooms, poorly lit, poky, cheap fittings and fixtures. Secondly, there is something to be said for having stable neighbours in sustaining community. As a hither-to lifelong renter, I don't want to say that renters cannot be kind neighbours, but they obviously have less at stake. The closer living of apartments means that 'What we owe to each other' consideration is more important. Given I still live in a sharehouse, it won't be a surprise that a sense of community in housing is a plus for me.

Some of these restrictions, I think it remains to be seen how they play out in practice... and how enforceable they might be or not be.

My building, "Parklife", is one of 6 buildings in a single development called Nightingale Village. These buildings are over 3 adjacent streets, and have a common underground carpark for carshare cars (no resident cars!). So this development is definitely more ambitious than the previous NH developments, only 2 of which are complete so far (the Commons and N1), although another 2 are close (N2 and N3). I naively thought that after balloting the Village they would slow down to get the bulk of these completed, but no... a month or two ago they announced a new development called Nightingale Anstey. They could rename this block surrounded by the train line, Albion St, Sydney Rd and Hope St a little mini suburb 'Nightingale'.

I'm kind of glad I didn't find out about NH until Parklife was balloting, because I don't know how I would have felt if I had gotten into one of the other buildings and then Parklife had been released. Truly a massive selling point for me is the promise of a park to the north of the building. This is being built by the local council during 2020. (NV is due to complete mid 2021.) NGL, the vision of an apartment facing north and overlooking a park is the actual dream and what really converted me from considering this an intriguing idea, to my future home. Every day I ride through Temple Park on my way to work, it is a lovely modest park, lushly green, with a warehouse conversion set of apartments to the south. I never really tried to buy one of them, but it has long been a fantasy. The other aspect of the fantasy is having a lazy greyhound to sleep in the sun with me <3

For me the other factor in coming around to being a mortgage-haver (which I am not yet - I have paid 5% deposit with my contract of sale, and the balance is due, ie my home loan has to be arranged, once it is complete and the bank can value it) is coming to grips with the amount of debt I would need to have to get something that I really think I could be comfortable in for 20+ years. For me that is a 2BR. It gives me the flexibility of having a housemate, or a spare room for friends and family to visit. I feel conscious of how often I am camped in other people's spare rooms and I have not had yet the capacity to return the favour. Initially I definitely plan to have a housemate but having the option to go solo is comforting.

I guess I don't know yet if they live up to the hype. Is the design actually that liveable, soundproof and efficient? I guess check back in 2-4 years and we'll see :)

PS. A splashback is the area behind the sink/stovetop in a kitchen. One of those terms that you literally never hear as a renter but is somehow critically important as an owner :)

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