Stories from the fringes of luxury
As the crow flies, Sophie's* modest rental is not far from Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban's sprawling Southern Highlands property.
It's slightly closer to rock legend Jimmy Barnes's long-standing retreat at Berrima in a region popular with weekend escapees from Sydney and Canberra.
But most people living in one of the fastest-growing property markets in regional Australia are not living in the lap of luxury.
More than 40 per cent of renters are spending at least a third of their income on housing.
Sophie - who is a domestic violence survivor and has asked to remain anonymous - knows how this feels.
'Rent prices were through the roof'
A few months ago she, along with her partner and young son, were forced to move after their previous landlords decided to sell.
Their weekly rent went from $500 to $750 overnight.
"The rent prices were through the roof," she says. "You couldn't get anywhere, like trying to rent a place, it was just non-existent."
She was a cleaner and her partner is a truck driver who regularly travels interstate for work.
According to the 2021 Census, 41.7 per cent of renters in Wingecarribee shire spend at least 30 per cent of their income on housing, compared to just 8.2 per cent five years ago.
Nationwide, households in rental stress have increased from 11.5 per cent to more than 32 per cent over the same period.
One income and no car
The Southern Highlands mother recently stopped cleaning and says it's sometimes difficult to live on just one income.
"It's really tough because he's doing more interstate; he's having to do more runs for Queensland just to pick up the rent," she says.
"Sometimes it's impossible to scrape by week by week, especially when you're paying high rent."
She says the bills come "one after the other" and, with limited savings, they haven't been able to replace her car after it broke down. Even accessing basic medical care without a vehicle is a struggle.
Half the region in rental stress
The couple is managing on one income for now.
But - despite being surrounded by wineries, heritage, art galleries, antique stores, boutiques and the natural beauty of the Great Dividing Range - many locals are not.
It certainly sounds ridiculous but $2 million is a foot in the door in this part of the world.- Angus Campbell-Jones, Campbell Jones Property licensee in Bowral, NSW
Before closing her cleaning business, she charged $45 per hour, but raised this to $50 for out-of-area clients when she felt the pinch of petrol price rises.
The haves and the have-nots
Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) acting chief executive Edwina MacDonald says rents continue to soar and the COVID-19 pandemic has had a long-term impact.
"Nationally, we've been seeing regional rent increases of 18 per cent over the last two years, dramatically outstripping any increases to the Commonwealth Rent Assistance," she says.
"ACOSS is concerned that people are now facing the double whammy of evictions due to rent rises, in addition to the increasing cost of living more generally."
$2 million is 'entry level' in Bowral
Homes in the Southern Highlands had the highest increase in prices in regional NSW and Australia at 38.2 per cent in the 12 months to December 2021, according to property analyst CoreLogic.
"Historically, property markets are like a staircase - it goes up, some of it treads, level out for a while, but very rarely does the staircase go downhill," says real estate agent Angus Campbell-Jones.
Mr Campbell-Jones is selling a two bedroom, two bathroom "original" cottage in the heart of historic Bowral, which will go to auction in early July and is expected to fetch $2 million.
The cottage is a stone's throw from Bradman Oval and museum - renowned local landmarks and close to the local hospital.
"I think for this location, for a place like this, it's probably entry level," he says.
"It certainly sounds ridiculous, but $2 million is a foot in the door in this part of the world."
CoreLogic's June 2022 Million Dollar Markets report revealed four suburbs in the Highlands now have median house values exceeding $1 million.
One village, Burradoo, had the fourth-highest median house value in regional NSW at more than $2.4 million.
The report says the market is easing, but house and unit prices rose by 22.1 per cent across regional Australia in the 12 months to May 2022.
Mr Campbell-Jones says property price surges have been a boon for homeowners but they're not always sure how they're going to find their next house.
"We have seen a lot of people that we've given market appraisals and they've been surprised at the current value of their homes," he says.
"And then they've gone to look around and say, 'Well if I'm selling this, what am I going to replace it with?'."
*Sophie is not her real name. She is a domestic violence survivor and has asked to remain anonymous.
My story: Briannah Devlin
I was thrilled when I was offered the job at the Southern Highland News. It was my start as a full-time journalist. I decided to commute from my home in Sydney so I can save for a property of my own. But seeing the prices across regional NSW skyrocket has been overwhelming. It makes me wonder if it's even possible to enter the market in my 20s.
Covering property stories in the Highlands south of Sydney, I soon discovered how expensive it is to live in the region - and the toll that takes on so many people in the community.
I'm always shocked to see the price tags on properties of all sizes, especially ones on large expanses of land or that have historical significance. Locals are worried about how their children will be able to afford their own places.