Real Estate reality check – most Sydney houses are pretty strange

After spending two years searching Sydney for the ideal home, my wife and I are finally ready to delete the and Domain apps from our iPhones. It has been an obsession that took us to dozens of Open Homes, hundreds of secret drive-bys and turned us into highly critical buyers and highly frustrated sellers. We also started cataloguing all the weirdest compromises people make.

Every home has something odd, if you look under enough rugs or check enough floor plans.

We found that over time, our standards dropped and our criteria loosened, but even still, some houses – even some we were considering bidding on – were beyond strange.

Here are some of the bizarro beauties we didn’t buy…

Barton Crescent Hurlstone Park

This is the house that got us thinking we should sell our home. Sure, it said five bedrooms but we figured that it was really 4 plus a study. Sure, it was hideous with wall-to-wall pebblecrete and would take years to salvage, but that would only turn people off, right? Sure, it was a good size block in a cul-de-sac near the train station, but if the agent says it’s affordable then… why did it get passed in for $100k more than what we were told it would go for? (To the agent’s credit, they refunded our building inspection.)

Here’s how we first saw it, followed by my own artist’s impression of how we may have saved it.

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Hampton Street Croydon Park
Again, we were on the lookout for 3BD homes but when a 5BD shows up in search results, you think you might somehow be on the only person to have spotted it. That is, until inspection day. This home had large living spaces, a pool, parquetry floors and off-street parking. And how many homes can offer you a fully-decked backyard! Every inch is ready to be oiled every year, allowing you to embrace the outdoors by standing, sitting in chairs, walking and chasing things your kids poke between the cracks.

Brighton Street Croydon
Despite my deeply held personal convictions, we even considered this 1980s McMansion. Miss-matched fences, seriously dodgy brickwork and a damp backyard aside, this ode to owner-builders had a sloping floor fit for Wet N Wild, plus more unfinished surfaces than a rock quarry. Plus, there were unfathomable decisions including a shower added to the rear of the kitchen. The kitchen! The laundry was nowhere to be seen but turned up hidden in the double garage – a garage to which there was no car access! Genius!

Higginbotham Road
Apart from the wood-panelled and windowed ceiling shown, this home had the strangest bathroom we’d ever seen. A fully moulded sky blue plastic shell, like a toilet cubicle from a 747. Easy to clean with no corners or crevices, but the feeling that the seatbelt light might come on at any time. And that was the ensuite.

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Barons Cresent, Boronia Park.
Even a driveway can make a house difficult to sell.
We really wanted this to work. We could get the kids into the great local school in this leafy suburb no one has heard of near Hunters Hill. This home ticked lots of boxes and then added a bunch more – bushy outlook, secluded property, north-facing, it even backed onto Lane Cove River which was visible beyond a mangrove boardwalk! Problem was, the house was on poles and the heavily sloping backyard was down 30 steps. The real dealbreaker came when we tried descending the narrow, steep battleaxe driveway in our new seven-seater. No guest would brave it, and I had palpitations just reversing out. No thanks.

Charles Street Petersham
Oddball from go to wo. It had enough character for me to ask for the contract while my wife was running for the door. This reasonably cramped semi featured the biggest walk-in robe we saw in any home. Outside there was an overgrown garden accessible only beyond a tree you had to limbo under. Their homemade glass atrium felt like an escape module. And then there was the garage, fit for a, err, shed.

Lyle Avenue Lindfield
The agent said it was an ‘idyllic bushland setting’, but being in Lindfield, that was a given. The house? It was a cool vintage number but the tree – a Myrtaceae myrtle – out the lounge room window was all we wanted. Yes, we genuinely considered buying a house way out of our area and out of our political and socio-economic comfort zone, all just to gaze at the most outstanding angophora we had ever seen. Its orange tones radiated like a bar heater. It was one of many on 1075 square metres. The house was a bit like Rose Seidler’s one up the road – with original furniture by the looks – and it eventually sold for less than $900k. Outrageous.

The tree was worth at least a million.

Searching for Australia in Koaland

Shopping for souvenirs in Cairns – a world away  from the nearest koala, emu or sheep.

I enjoyed reading a piece by Nick Bryant on Australia’s national identity and how it has been misshapen through our self-reflective cliches. The way we call ourselves ‘Down Under’ to Americans is cited as one example of how we tend to belittle ourselves. (I would add that our failure to put Americans in their place when they use the term also shows a tendency to ignore our success and pride.)

Nick’s article included this paragraph to help explain our fond attachment to phrases most of us don’t even like or use …

…as the database at the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra reveals, “She’ll be right” gets at least two outings a week in Australian newspapers, while “Tall Poppy Syndrome” has been a weekly fixture for years. As the Centre’s director, Sarah Ogilvie, notes: “People are still using phrases which to an outsider seem anachronistic.”

Nick is a talented journalist whose biography shows he has moved regularly during his time as a foreign correspondent.  Nick’s decision to stay in Australia since 2006 shows, I believe, his admiration for our country, plus some sense of hope in our future. If you thought our best years were behind us, you wouldn’t move here. You would just visit, grab some souvenirs, then head home to where you belong, right?

I have just returned from a week in Cairns, in Far North Queensland, where the souvenirs tend to define a city having its own identity crisis. Stifling nostalgia is passed off as a historical discovery tour. Surreal caricatures of our fauna trivialise any natural beauty that lies outside our cities.  If you subscribe to my Facebook Feed, you would have seen my gallery of the region’s eclectic architecture and other oddities but neither of those begin to explain the schizophrenia  Cairns suffers trying to balance as a home for locals and as an international tourist destination.

As Cairns tries to position itself as the first stop for Asian visitors to our shores – something record airport arrivals would suggest it is doing very well – what greets visitors is a parade of tackiness and a clichéd approach to our emblems, wildlife and culture that presents an Australia unchanged since the 1960s.

Here is what confronted me on my first wander through the town centre; Opals, Ugg boots, koala backpacks and, for when you feel peckish… emu jerky.

Which of these resonates the most with your knowledge or concept of Australia?

Opal shop owners are doing us all a disservice. The romanticised depiction of a man down a mine grabbing a precious stone has kept Sydney’s The Rocks alive for much too long. It’s a tragedy that Cairns is going the same dusty, irrelevant way. Few Australians will ever head to Coober Pedy, and just because even fewer tourists will, doesn’t mean we should shovel such a flawed idea of mining down their bejeweled throats. Yes, we are the world’s largest producer of opal – being responsible for 95% of production – but most of it comes to us not by a rugged man in King Gees and a torch-helmet but like this…

…especially the opals coming out of Queensland.

Ugg boots are a peculiar fashion statement, at best. Wearing Ugg boots in Cairns – as I am told people do when the temperature drops below 20 degrees Celcius – is truly gormless. Trotting out Uggs and sheepskin rugs is also a quaint throwback to an age before polarfleece and cotton blends, when we were all wrapped in wool because there was a shearing shed down the road. But the fantasy must stop that put Australia forward as a sheepish, agricultural economy built on grazing animals for which the export market is rapidly dwindling just as the our ownership of the word ‘Ugg’ is under threat.

No Australian would think of skinning a koala, let alone wearing one on our back. The myth of the ‘Koala Bear’ should really have died off along with Matilda, the winking kangaroo inexplicably wheeled out at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1982. Let’s be honest with our tourists – most people who manage to see a koala find it snoring and if they choose to hug one of the heavily clawed, disinterested beasts, they had better not be in NSW or Victoria where it is illegal in Victoria for anyone other than a Koala’s handler to hold them.

As for emu jerky…

There could be no more superficial Americanisation of Australian wildlife as this. Jerky is a US fascination and employing our national emblems to enjoy a salted chewy treat makes me sick for all number of untreatable reasons.

Cairns used to see most of its tourists arrive from Japan, however China and Germany are now the biggest contributors to the local tourism industry, no doubt due to the relative strength of those two nations. I was surprised to hear German used as the second language after English to give instructions on the Scenic Kuranda Railway.  Likewise, many signs in the town centre are also displayed in Chinese. The local paper, the Cairns Post, reports peak tourism bodies are striving to bring Chinese flights direct into Cairns which would send arrivals from our biggest export market into the tens of thousands per year.

So far, the nation we feel safest putting forward is still tied to the outback and way out-of-touch.

Will we present the world with a decades-old view of our nation’s brightest points; one of a dusty rural paradise where so few drovers actually roam and precious few miners dig for opals by hand, or will it be one that shows off our colours, talent and enthusiasm for life, exhibited in our stunning capital cities and across countless regional centres each with their own appeal? Let’s promote the brands and outfits we stand by, the artists and home-grown designers we know by name. Let’s leave The Kens behind. Ken Duncan and Ken Done, your time has past. Our tourism has become entrenched in a dated value system that elevates our strange marsupials and landscapes above our achievements as a wealthy, warm people who have accepted millions of migrants, built glorious cities, a diverse society and a robust national economy and we will happily share our glorious nature with anyone who visits.  We will even let some of them stay.

A match made in Helvetica

I like to think that the bankruptcy, this week, of American Airlines, was due – at least in part – to their poor choice of typeface.


Look at their logo, sitting there in all its plain-jane, inoffensive, saccharine simplicity.

It is the child in the playground who always brought their lunch neatly wrapped? Their shoes were always clean and shirts perfectly pressed. They had few friends but couldn’t care less because their mummy was proud of them.

The child’s name is Helvetica.

The typeface blends with everything, yet is noticed by no one. It resides in your mind next to muzac, the colour of off-white and the odour of traffic fumes.

If you realised how ubiquitous Helvetica was, you would be sent insane.


One type designer, Cyrus Highsmith, did once try to avoid the typeface for a period of 24 hours. It didn’t end well. Hell, it didn’t even start well.

7.50 Morning. Time to get up. A Helvetica-free day! What will happen? Will I survive this typographic adventure?

7.55 This doesn’t look good. Almost all my clothes have labels set in Helvetica to explain how to wash them. I have found a Helvetica-free t-shirt, socks and underwear, but no pants yet. I work from home so it might not be a problem but I was planning to go into the city today for a meeting. yes, I need pants. Read more…

But back to American Airlines.


The logo above is the typographic counterpart to the ‘AA’ logo with stylised eagle. But the eagle was clearly weighing them down as they seemed to have dropped it from much of their marketing in recent years.

Keep it simple.

As LogoDesignLove points out, the AA logo was created by Vignelli Associates, a firm also responsible for the identity of Benetton (another fine moment in Helvetica).

You may also know and even like the font as it is used by the New York City Subway system. The spacing, the colour coded signs and the names of stations has made the use emblematic of Helvetica’s durability and suitability for seemingly any purpose.

Sadly, this simplicity caught on and was soon copied holus-bolus by the clothing brand American Apparel.

Helvetica suited their ideals well. They want to represent the everyday American. They are straight-talking, unassuming, efficient and clean. Others can be edgy, this is all about a direct, All-American approach that gets things done… it’s like ordering fries, like driving an SUV, like buying a t-shirt, hell, they are so American they only employ Americans and do not outsource any labour.

Dov Charney, the 42-year-old founder and CEO of American Apparel, started a revolution when he declared consumers were given too many options and it took sweatshops to deliver them all.

“We keep feeding consumers these ridiculous choices,” Charney told Salon in 2004. “But it’s on the backs of inhumane labor.”

He wanted to standardise things.

Helvetica fitted the bill so neatly. (Except that Helvetica was designed in Switzerland, but that is beside the point.)

Eventually, other brands started to cotton on too. American Apparel faced a challenge from GAP, who ripped off not just the typeface but also the layout of their billboards.


Then, in some kind of meta battle, American Apparel started releasing standardised t-shirts of their standardised font choice.

You could buy a shirt with just a letter, in lower and upper case, or, eventually, a shirt paying tribute to the font itself.


Then, as this tragic, modeling hipster shows (below), the bland, painful circle was complete.


A shirt about the font that references the brand who made the shirt.


I am no designer. But many designers do support me in this tirade.


Read David-The-Designer’s blog titled “52 Fonts You Could Use Instead Of Helvetica” in which he notes the dilemma is that people revert to this typeface in the same way they do old socks.

Helvetica, or its serif equivalent, Times New Roman, are, “more often than not, used without thinking – simply because it’s there. It’s successful though, there’s no denying that.”


I just hope that with the pending demise of American Airlines, society might also rein in Helvetica a peg or two.   Think of it as an austerity measure – one to ensure future generations don’t have to endure such painfully normal fonts as they try to face daily life with enthusiasm and not lowest-common-denominator thinking.


The Keli Lane twist

Does anyone know what is going on with this? She doesn’t appear to be a manipulating killer capable of pure evil. Yet she makes it through an entire court case and heads off to jail for the good part of her middle age without ever giving a plausible explanation of her missing baby’s whereabouts… kelilane_header.jpg Then, today, just two days after the verdict is delivered, a taxi driver appears – as if out of nowhere – and has a plausible story of how he witnessed Keli dumping her baby in bushland. (Read the taxi driver’s story) The still-shocking event happened during a taxi ride from the hospital and the story ends with the baby be taken away by a mystery woman!!?? Not out of morbid curiosity but …. oh actually it it probably is. Here are my immediate questions… Where was the taxi driver during the months of cross-examination and blanket media coverage? Where was the taxi driver last week when Channel 7 offered half a million dollars for this kind of info Who is this lady who picked up the baby? Was it arranged drop-off point? Why leave a newborn baby with a bottle unless you expect it to be picked up and the bottle is for the new caretaker? wanted300.jpg

What do you think? I want to hear some theories…

I also want to know the baby is still alive.

UPDATE: The twist also has a twist. The taxi driver making the claims has been identified as having suffered mental illness and had their licence cancelled at the time of baby Tegan’s birth. Keli has denied she dumped the baby in bushland.

Chemical burnout and the death of Pot Pourri

This post will be shorter than the last few. I promise. But first, click here to watch a commercial. My wife and I went as chemical-free as we could about a year ago. No more non-organic dishwasher powder, sunscreen, laundry detergents, cleaning sprays etc. (Shampoos and deodorants are not so easy to switch away from, but that’s all for another blog.) But lately I am increasingly worried about chemicals in the home and how many people are wilfully ignorant as companies continue pushing even more audacious concoctions.

This all started for me when I saw an ad for ANT SAND. This is a product you throw around your backyard like confetti (imagine you were having a wedding, for ants) and it will eradicate all ants within five metres. (A tragic wedding massacre, did i mention?) So, really, Ant Sand is like a granule form of Ant Rid.

Tried that? It does wonders. How? Arsenic.

Go on! Spread arsenic around the house!
Go on! Spread
arsenic around the house!

This chemical wants to be spread pretty much anywhere you or kids like going; “just sprinkle Ant Sand in cracks and crevices, in between pavers, on lawns…” See more Are people really developing such a fear of natural life in urban areas that they must destroy all evidence? This Ant Sand is like fly spray that is so toxic you just spray it on a surface and small insect that comes near will miraculously drop dead. Oh, they have that? If you go outside people, you might expect an occasional arachnid, buzzard or airborne thingamajig. A swipe of the face usually deals with it. No need to poison yourselves, your visitors and your children, is there?

Then, this week I came across the next insidious invention from those great unsung heroes, industrial chemists. How about an insect spray for the outdoors – and this is no Aerogard, you don’t want to get me started on suspect repellents we are supposed to lather onto our bodies – this great new product just keeps spraying and killing and spraying and killing!



Now, RAID®, bless them, have had ‘Automatic Insect Control Systems’ for some time. In their words, it “uses a “unique automatic dispenser uses advanced MicroMist™ technology which creates a mist of incredibly fine micro particles to eliminate insects. Because it’s a mist, not a spray, it stays in the air longer, and is more easily spread throughout your whole room.” They literally call it ‘set and forget’. That will seem ironic when later on you get Alzheimer’s for some unknown reason. What a joyous land of fresh-aired achievement we live in. Why would I want to breathe in air when a lab can produce something that can kill any small living thing and allow me to keep breathing too!


Brand Power likes

But why not take this genius outside? Don’t worry, they have. Introducing NaturGard.

  • The Naturgard Automatic Outdoor Insect Control System provides outdoor protection against flies and
    mosquitoes when used continuously
  • Protects a sheltered outdoor area of 5m x 5m
  • Automatically releases small bursts of mist containing natural pyrethrin plant extracts** at regular intervals.
  • Adjustable setting which allows you to regulate the timing depending on your conditions

Jamie Durie would be so happy to know his Outdoor Room wasn’t going to be tainted by anything actually typical of the outdoors, like evil flies.

The chemical mentioned – pyrethrin – is the insecticide you can’t spray on herbs you are planning on eating because it will
make you sick. But don’t let that worry you. Mortein make NaturGard, but they have competition. Here’s how one company, the reliably named DoItTV describe the effects their product has on its target: “This spray not only kills when you spray directly onto the insect but it also leaves an invisible residue on surfaces which is fatal to any bug or insect that comes into contact with it. And it keeps on killing for months without having to reapply.” Months! I can have my backyard infected, sorry, protected, for months with just one spray. And if kids come over and eat dirt, lick a leaf, or touch a piece of decking have sprayed… well… that will be fine because I am sure it’s only microtraces that are just enough to kill hardy cockroaches on contact.

Why care about these chemicals when clearly people are living longer lives? While many chemicals may be absorbed into our system without ongoing harm, many cancers continue to claim people at all stage of life with no known cause. Afflictions including depression and ADHD are on the rise, and few people stop to think if choices to live in a mist of chemicals could have an impact on the chemicals in their brain. (This point, obviously needs more probing.)

Lastly, can I recommend a bit of subterfuge. No one will complain if you quietly disconnect the deodorising spray you may have in your office bathroom. These, like innocent old oil burners, spread sweet-smelling fragrances that you then breathe in all day.

It’s less than smart, masking odours by getting you to breathe in carcinogens that smell only slightly better.

Not everything should be an easy fix. But it can be without being so harmful.

What ever happened to a bowl of Pot Pourri?

Why you must see U2 live, dammit.

U2 have recently stopped being my favourite band. I don’t have a replacement, yet. But seeing they are in the country, I am nostalgic about them and eager to see their latest live incarnation and think EVERYONE else should cough up $40 to see an unequalled live event. (Yes, that’s all they cost)

Since I saw the live for the Zoo TV tour, I have been saying to  people that they have to see U2 live once in their lives.

I don’t think any live band comes close for spectacle. And don’t we all live  for a bit of spectacle?

A U2 concert tops the fun of the World Cup and the camaraderie of the Olympics. It’s open-minded yet it feels like an enormous spiritual moment as the crowd moves as one enjoying goodwill and some brilliant songs. Plus, awesome technology and production!

My connection with U2 has always had a spiritual element and at times it is hard to imagine anyone could like them without feeling God in their music.

Now, the music, for me, has taken a back seat. Their presence is bigger than their songs and that’s a dilemma. For the first time I am headed to a U2 concert not to see them play their latest album – or to play those embarrassing Mix-FM numbers like Pride or Mysterious Ways – but just to see the show.

Here’s where i think they went wrong. In an insightful review in UNCUT mag after the LP All That You Can’t Leave Behind,  the writer pointed out that U2 can’t write a song that doesn’t explode with a big, inevitable chorus. (The delicate, cool song New York was one particularly ruined by this.) The whole song hinges on it happening, that moment you get lifted up, possibly with tingles in your neck hairs and then the bass and guitar drench you in joy. It feels great but not when it becomes a cliché. I can’t stand hearing Beautiful Day for just this reason.

So, the strangeness of their latest album made some sense to me. No Line On The Horizon has a title track that is awkward at best. Because Bono has tried to write a whole album of songs that creep up on you but never leap out. They stir you but don’t frighten or enlighten you. Sadly, he is no good at this. He can’t do drama.

Yes, the album has bright spots but the low spots are the best for me – Moment of Surrender, particularly. It doesn’t go anywhere, and that, for once is fine. Many of the other songs still haven’t found what they’re doing there.

I imagine it will all come together and may even make sense at their concert. They are one band that is meant to be heard on stage, not on bloody Mix-FM.

Now, go buy a ticket.

Gillard plunges the knife – exposing Rudd’s humanity

I met former PM Kevin Rudd during a Channel 7 forum organised by my Executive Producer, Adam Boland. I was impressed with Kevin Rudd’s determined approachability. It was the kind of televised event that could be taken as cynical and facetious but for those in the room at least, for those brief moments, we got what we all want to believe – that politicians are just like us, and that they actually like us.

As if to ram this point home, Kevin bounced up to my wife and daughter and I at the end of the broadcast. he spent a minute to discuss parenting and shared a quick story that he his children had ‘bumps’ on their head just like our baby did. We were self-conscious about our baby’s small forehead bump but the PM came down to our level and it felt entirely genuine.

It was classic Kevin.

My lovely baby bumps

Meeting Kev

During the forum, the questions flew at him like those glowing balls on Tron that you deflect with your frisbee. Rudd was a master with the frisbee.

Like every recent appearance on Sunrise, he had no warning of any question – he had to be on his toes, and he performed with class. Unsurprisingly, it was at the peak of his popularity.

When he was directly in front of voters, Kevin would not squirm his way out of questions like he did when in a studio battling the wits of a TV presenter.  He couldn’t avoid saying anything in particular, as became his unfortunate talent, using his stalling phrases ad nauseam – ‘Let me just say this’, ‘The fact of the matter is’ and the rest of them. Double-ugh.

He was a real guy. He was certainly a diplomat and could speak with programmatic specificity when he needed to, but when he was talking to Sunrise staff, or when he was on Rove, I thought Kevin was painfully real.

Ultimately, he was too real to be Prime Minister.

From what we hear he managed his staff like he was a McDonald’s crew trainer burning through teenagers who couldn’t meet unrealistic targets.

Perhaps it was the demanding reformist agenda that needed to burn through one leader along the way, I am not sure, but I think Kevin was a victim of being what we wanted in a leader – one of us.

Kev tried, often too hard to prove it. He quickly mastered twitter and told us what films he saw on the weekend. He said “Are we ready to roll, guys?” at the start of pres conferences. Last week he told Latika Bourke, a press gallery journo, that she had a nice scarf. Hell, he even appeared on Rove. Twice!

He was criticised for all those things. We want a real leader, but not too real.

Yet today, when Kev broke down in his farewell speech, he had us feeling he was on our level again.

Nice scarf, son

Nice scarf, son

Julia Gillard, Rudd’s replacement, is, I fear, what the job needs. A Politician.

Shrewd, precise, Gillard is like the colleague at Maccas who hits their targets every week. Hopefully she learns to have fun too – to be real.

But then – as I think we learned today – that would be asking too much of a Prime Minister.

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