The appeal of a regional lifestyle, flexible work arrangements and generous government grants have helped create a surge in home construction.
But the high demand for houses plus the past year's unique circumstances also bring potential shortages of land, materials and labour.
While welcoming the increased activity, Border and North East builders are well aware of the accompanying challenges.
Melbourne residents, particularly, are looking towards the regions after strict COVID-19 conditions and learning to working from home.
Metricon Homes general manager of regional Victoria Phil Barrett believed in the past few years regional job opportunities had also improved, particularly in tourism.
"We've got better universities, we've got better hospitals and that's all driving a lot of the young people back to the towns they grew up in," he said.
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He cited one couple who recently bought a house in Wodonga, moving back to the Border after 10 years away.
"Still working for a Melbourne firm and will go to Melbourne a couple of days a month to the office, the rest of the time will work from home," Mr Barrett said.
"And that's a pattern that we're seeing quite strongly in our sales, in the customers that we're selling to.
"People can not only buy a cheaper block in regional areas, in most cases the blocks are bigger and they're closer to recreational facilities such as the river.
"We saw a concreter from Melbourne move to Shepparton ... so it's not just the home buyers that are moving out of Melbourne, it's also some of the trades at the same time and that's something we are actively promoting through social media and advertising to attract the right trades."
We have offices in Yarrawonga, Wangaratta and Wodonga and our inquiries are up 300 per cent of people wanting to relocate to regional VictoriaRick Leeworthy, Hadar Homes
Hadar Homes managing director Rick Leeworthy said younger buyers had been interested in Albury-Wodonga while in Yarrawonga more queries came from people in their 50s or 60s, looking to work remotely.
"We have offices in Yarrawonga, Wangaratta and Wodonga and our inquiries are up 300 per cent of people wanting to relocate to regional Victoria," he said.
"All these things are compounding, which is positive in the sense of our growth in regional Victoria/southern NSW."
'Busy as it's ever been'
Inquiries are leading to sales, as reinforced by all the builders who spoke to The Border Mail.
B&H Homes director Joshua Baker felt the industry was "as busy as it's ever been".
"Probably comparable to pre-GST introduction in the early 2000s, we're certainly in a pretty blessed position in that we're very well supported and we've just got the perfect scenario of low interest rates and people wanting to migrate out of the cities," he said.
Mr Barrett said Metricon Homes sales in regional Victoria in 2020 rose by about 35 per cent.
"Last financial year, Metricon started 1000 homes in regional Victoria," he said.
"One would suggest we're going to build 1300-1400 homes in regional Victoria in the next 12 months.
"Last year was certainly a year of great success in sales, this year certainly there will be challenges in delivering that for builders."
Housing Industry Association chief economist Tim Reardon expected almost 130,000 new detached homes would begin construction in 2021, more than the previous record of 120,000 starts set in 2018.
Grants drive land grab
The federal government's HomeBuilder scheme helped drive much of this activity, with the initial program of $25,000 grants for new homes or renovations extended until March 31 at a lower rate of $15,000.
Grant recipient Russel Ferguson's Thurgoona home in Kerrford Park Estate was already in the planning, but he noticed changes once HomeBuilder began.
"All the blocks of land around me suddenly got snapped up in the next two or three months after that announcement and now it's just going crazy up there," he said.
"It was a bit of a challenge applying for the HomeBuilder grant given that all the states and territories had to scramble to develop websites and portals and that sort of thing."
The construction of the accountant's four-bedroom home, now at lock-up stage, had not been delayed by the pandemic so far but securing his land a year ago had assisted.
Last year was certainly a year of great success in sales, this year certainly there will be challenges in delivering that for buildersPhil Barrett, Metricon Homes
Land supply remains a factor, with Mr Barrett saying the boom in house sales had caught people "a bit off-guard".
"Land developers work within restrictions of planning, financing, demand and all of a sudden if the home sales doubled in a month, they're going to be caught with no stock," he said.
Last year's COVID-19 restrictions caused some delays to the process of releasing, approving and establishing new developments.
"Whether it be permits being issued, stage inspections, installations of water, sewer, stormwater, there will be pressure on those utility companies as well," the Metricon general manager said.
The HIA's Tim Reardon said land availability would be the constraint on reaching the expected record number of homes built.
"Land development slowed in 2020 when the restrictions were introduced and will limit the number of homes that start construction this year," he said.
Supplies run scarce
Mr Leeworthy said builders had been warned of current or approaching shortages in materials such as timber, electrical appliances and cabinetry items.
"A lot of suppliers are blaming manufacturing being shut down and a problem importing into the country with the industrial dispute on the wharves," he said.
Last summer's bushfires affected NSW plantations more "although we have been warned that it's going to get worse (in the North East)".
"We've been told to get our orders in regarding timber, how much we need," he said.
Obtaining tradespeople during the building surge can also become more difficult.
Mr Baker said the introduction of the HomeBuilder grants meant many projects and permits had reached a similar stage.
"Therefore everybody needs a slab, everybody needs a frame, everybody needs all the same trades at the same time," he said.
"They are in high demand, probably unlike any time before, they're booked out months, sometimes half a year to 12 months in advance."
Mr Barrett said many building companies had already been adapting to a lack of labour in some areas like bricklaying and roof tiling, for example using more lightweight exterior cladding and Colorbond roofs.
"There's been a number of, I guess, changes to our methods to get around some of these shortages," he said.
Mr Leeworthy agreed tradespeople were working "around the clock", predicting the situation would peak in about two or three months and stretch the house construction industry.
Lockdown lighter side
So in one sense Victoria's snap five-day lockdown earlier this month had something of an upside.
"We're going to start a house every day until about mid-August, so to get three days off, I think our subbies appreciated it," Mr Leeworthy said.
"We saw it as a bit of a blessing to have a bit of a break because our guys are getting tired."
But without doubt the Victorian government's "circuit-breaker", the first time the building industry had been shut down during the pandemic, did hinder businesses at their busiest.
Master Builders Victoria chief executive Rebecca Casson estimated more than $450 million was lost in revenue and $63 million lost in wages every day the industry remained closed.
"As Victoria's third largest sector, the building, construction and development industry pays the wages of more than one in four Victorians," she said.
Mr Barrett said the ripple effects went beyond the set days when construction sites fell silent.
"You not only delay the jobs you were going to work on in those five days, you've also got jobs stacked up behind, waiting," he said.
"Even just a five-day shutdown for us, it took us a number of days to get back to normality again, simply because you've got to reschedule your timber deliveries, you've got to reschedule your trades, so yes, that was a bit of an upset for us this month."
Mr Baker said with construction being an essential industry during 2020, the sudden lockdown stopped B&H Homes' Victorian projects for the first time, but possibly not the last.
"Our schedules were completely thrown out the window as they will be, I'm sure, many more times this year," he said.
"But we dust ourselves off and we'll go again.
"Small things to whinge about compared to other industries that have really been impacted by COVID."
The Border builders say clients have shown great understanding around any delays, with the pandemic increasing everybody's ability to adapt.
"We certainly are having some challenges trying to manage through this spike, which we are excited about and encouraged," Mr Leeworthy said.
"It's a great challenge to have, but we've just got to try to navigate through it."
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