Sydney Forget that swim at the beach, round of golf or relaxing breakfast with the newspaper. For thousands of Sydneysiders, the most common Saturday morning ritual these days is scouring the suburbs for somewhere to live. By the time the real estate agent arrives for the 15-minute viewing there's an expectant throng waiting outside the advertised property. The mood, however, is more funereal than festive as more people (immigrants and locals alike) compete for a dwindling number of rental properties. With the city's inflated property prices sliding inexorably southwards, demand for houses and apartments to rent is spiralling out of control. A modest flat in an inner city suburb like Surry Hills or Potts Point can draw a crowd of more than 60 people. So bad is Sydney's rental crisis (a report suggests the rental vacancy rate is just 3.6 per cent) that some would-be tenants have resorted to bribing agents - others have even threatened violence. While experts are divided about the exact cause of Sydney's dire shortage of rental property - some blame record levels of immigration, others the basic lack of housing stock - you do not need to go far to witness the human toll. 'We're getting pretty desperate,' confesses a middle-aged man to an agent showing a flat in Elizabeth Bay. 'If we don't get somewhere by the end of the month we'll be homeless.' Such is the demand that the agency does not even need to clean the flat or wait for the tenant to vacate - at A$690 (HK$3,700), it'll be snapped up that day. Troubled by fluctuating interest rates and collapsing property prices, many middle-class people are opting out of homeownership - an act of blasphemy in a country where everyone aspires to owning a brick house on a quarter acre block. Liam O'Hara, a senior economist at Australian Property Monitors, said that even with a recent 1 per cent cut in bank interest rates, the outlook for the real estate market is bleak. 'The amount of debt out there in the suburbs is astronomical,' he said. But the pain is even more acute for poorer families on Sydney's western fringes. Hundreds are now defaulting on their mortgages and waiting for the bailiffs to run them out. Many are applying for state-owned housing. Chris Martin, a policy officer with the New South Wales Tenants Union, said that with 50,000 people on the waiting list for government housing, some of his clients stay with other families, parents or even in a friend's garage. 'If you are forced to live with your parents or occupy their garage, then you're homeless,' he said. Caravan parks are already full to capacity. 'If someone leaves, another person moves in straight away,' said retiree Tom Dixon, who lives in one on the city's outskirts. Although economists are confident the local property market is not headed for a US-style collapse, welfare agencies say they are already being overwhelmed by the homeless or those facing eviction. 'This has been our busiest year ever,' said Reverend Keith Garner of The Wesley Mission. But Sydney's real estate agents are surprisingly upbeat. With property prices cooling, they say it's an excellent time for 'cashed-up buyers' to pick up a bargain. For many, though, the frustrating search for that elusive place to rent looks certain to continue.