(Australian Associated Press)
There was a moment when Sydney woman Lisa Penson thought she had made the biggest mistake of her life.
She wanted to escape the increasingly expensive city but wasn’t prepared to give up her career as a business coach and teacher.
She had a place to stay in a small town that had high-speed internet and was close to a highway.
But, as she shivered in an old fibro cottage, unable to coax a wood heater to life in a brutal Blue Mountains winter, the fibre-optics and train lines were little comfort.
“I just thought ‘Oh my God what have you done?’, Go back to your apartment in Summer Hill,” she told AAP.
She was close to work, there were countless places to eat – she even got on well with her neighbours in Sydney’s trendy inner west.
But she’d bought the “cheapest house on the street” as an investment in outlying Lawson years earlier and, when her tenants left, she gave up the city after almost 13 years.
That was more than a year ago and Ms Penson says it was the best decision she’s ever made.
“I’d never go back – you go to the cafe, the community centre, the bottle shop and people know your name,” she said.
It was the cost of living and housing which became the major drawcard, she said.
But she needed to maintain her career from Lawson and the rollout of the national broadband network meant she could still service her Sydney clients.
“I do a lot of the coaching over Skype now and the internet means I can keep doing that,” she said.
The importance of the internet is clearly not lost on legislators; 2.5 million homes and businesses outside of major urban areas have been connected to the NBN so far, the government says.
And Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce – perhaps the government’s most prominent advocate for decentralisation – spent much of his re-election campaign promising high-speed internet in the bush.
But convenience still takes a hit outside the city, Ms Penson concedes.
“When I run out of milk … I can’t just duck out and grab it, I have to drive. And if you’re into fashionable clothes and fancy restaurants the bush is not the place to be.”
So she turned to internet shopping, and the data shows she’s part of a growing trend.
Australia Post, who now deliver millions of packages every year, found regional Australians like Ms Penson are increasingly buying online.
“Whilst (online shopping in) metro locations are growing at 15 per cent, regional locations have the edge across some online shopping categories,” Australia Post’s international and eCommerce general manager Ben Franzi told AAP.
“This includes variety stores which has grown by 14 per cent compared to only nine per cent in metro areas, where a broad range of items such as fashion, consumer electronics and homewares are very popular.”
Equally important for Ms Penson is transport – she still teaches business one day a week in Sydney thanks to the network of highways and regular trains that run into the city.
Central Coast real estate agent Clint Harris said almost half of his clients are leaving Sydney for a sea change – and house size and freeways are top of their wishlist too.
“You can still buy a nice four-bedder brick home for a family in Woongarrah for under $600,000,” he told AAP.
In Parramatta, by contrast, the median house price is more than $1 million.
While Sydney’s west exploded in size when the working class was priced out of the city, outlying areas now absorb the middle and upper-middle class too, Mr Harris said.
“There’s no manufacturing boom so some people moving here are blue collar but plenty are also in IT, retail and white-collar jobs like accounting.
“It doesn’t matter whether they earn $70,000 or $200,000 a year now, they’re all in the same boat and can’t afford to buy in Sydney.”
Mr Harris said the area was changing to keep up – trendy cocktail bars and cafes were popping up along the once sleepy main streets, a change Ms Penson has also seen in Lawson.