Darwin delivers consistently high returns

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 January, 2010, 12:00am

The Chinese have long enjoyed a close relationship with Darwin, the northern most capital of all Australian states and territories.

Darwin is closer, geographically, to Singapore than Melbourne. From the late 1880 onwards, the city drew thousands of Chinese migrants who came to dig in the rich goldfields or build the railways, and at one stage, the Chinese population outnumbered Europeans. Chinese businesses and services contributed greatly to the growth of Darwin as a port and northern gateway. To this day, Chinese lanterns light up many of the main street shopfronts at night.

Darwin has Australia's oldest Chinatown, and behind English, Mandarin is still one of the most common languages spoken in the city. Yet when it came to property investment, Darwin simply was not on the radar of the Chinese living overseas.

While their investment dollars poured in to (mostly) Sydney and Melbourne, Darwin was simmering away, increasing in value, and delivering consistently high yields. Yet courtesy of the global financial crisis, Darwin is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Local buyer's agent Tod Peterson says would-be investors, numbering 600, were 'blown away' when he presented Darwin's credentials at a recent property roadshow in Singapore. 'Nobody knew what was going on in Darwin,' said Peterson, director of Peterson's Property Search. But they know now, and their interest is piqued.

What was going on was a major success story: while many of the world's property markets entered a sharp downward cycle from 2008 onwards, Darwin continued to boom, seemingly immune.

Based on latest data from the rpdata.com, Australia's largest residential property database, Darwin values rose 12.7 per cent in the first 10 months of last year to a median of A$427,608 (HK$3.07 million) - making it the second best performing capital for the year behind Melbourne.

Darwin also gave landlords the highest yields, with rents up 6 per cent for houses and 6.2 per cent for units. An average three-bedroom house in Darwin now rents for around A$570 per week. According to Australian Property Monitors, the closest to this is Sydney at around A$450 per week.

Cameron Kusher, a senior research analyst at rpdata.com, says Darwin has had 'a tremendous run over the last 18 to 24 months seemingly unaffected by the global financial crisis'. He adds that, from an investment perspective, 'the city remains extremely attractive due to the impressive yields'.

Peterson says offshore investors were not the only ones to dismiss Darwin as 'a sleepy little backwater' - a concept shared by many in Australia's bigger cities. That is changing on the back of consistently positive growth figures, and the merits of choosing the Northern Territory capital become clearer.

Quentin Kilian, chief executive, Real Estate Institute of the Northern Territory, believes he knows why investors are finally waking up to Darwin: 'because it's such a lovely place!' A former Hong Kong resident himself, he cites the climate (similar to Hong Kong's, but without the winter), clean environment, friendly people, and laid-back lifestyle. Like Hong Kong, it is even called a territory - not a state - and has one of Australia's fastest-growing economies.

But apart from the feel-good factors, Kilian says a shortage of housing supply has pushed Darwin's house prices up over the last four or five years, and exponentially over the past 12 to 18 months. 'Another key factor driving the market along is population growth,' he adds. 'Darwin now has the third fastest growing population in Australia, and it's also the youngest, with an average age of just 31.7 years.'

People come to Darwin for the job opportunities, but they tend to be transient, moving on after a few years. Kilian believes that many stayed on during the financial crisis, as employment in the southern states slowed. This put more pressure on housing, but the government has announced a new land release early this year, for which 'everyone is holding their breath'.

He adds that exciting developments in the town offer 'boundless opportunities' - among them multibillion-dollar gas projects by Inpex and Woodside Petroleum. 'Darwin is gearing up to be the gas hub of the Asia-Pacific, including servicing offshore,' says Kilian. 'We will have a whole new industry here over the next decade.'

Kilian believes this all augurs well for a property market 'on the cusp of growth' - a growth he believes is long overdue. 'With everything that's happening at the moment, investors will find lots of opportunities in Darwin that they could expect to return them quite rapid growth.'