Renting an affordable option to break into top school zones

In the new Forever Renters series, rent specialist Emily Hutchinson explores the issues impacting long-term renters, who are choosing to rent rather than buy property.

Buying property in a top school catchment zone is one way for parents to secure their child’s place in their preferred school. However, this option is out of reach for many, with many school zones consisting of suburbs with high median house prices.

Could renting be a suitable alternative?

Renting in a school catchment zone allows parents to secure their child’s place within their preferred school without having to commit to a hefty mortgage.

Alicia and Zach Benn-Lawler rent a four-bedroom house in Melbourne’s northern suburbs with their three children and said renting has allowed them to live not only in a suitably-sized house, but within their preferred school catchment zone.

“We’ve been able to rent in areas where we otherwise couldn’t buy and generally the quality of the schools and amenities in those areas are much higher and so being able to rent in those areas means you’re exposed to a lot more options for your children to experience when it comes to schooling,” explained Mr Benn-Lawler.

Renting in top school catchment zones enables parents to send their children to top schools. Picture: Getty

“A lot of our choices when it comes to renting are about how it will affect our kids. Our dream is to see them grow up happy and healthy and being able to rent in certain areas [with good schools] gives them a much better chance than if we were trying to own a home way out in the middle of nowhere because that’s what we can afford.”

Renting vs buying in top school catchment zones

Recent data from the Real Estate Institute of Victoria showed that many suburbs within top school catchment zones in Melbourne attract high median house prices, some more than half a million dollars more than homes just one kilometre from the border.

Director of economic research at Cameron Kusher said properties in the popular school zones are highly sought after and tend to be more expensive.

“This may be partially explained by good school zones generally being closer to the city in more expensive housing areas,” he said. 

Houses in suburbs zoned to sought-after Albert Park College in Melbourne have a $1.75 million median price – a huge $495,000 mark-up on property prices outside the catchment.

While buying a property within a top school catchment zone may not be possible for parents or suit their lifestyles, renting offers a practical and, more often than not, cheaper alternative.

In the surrounding suburbs of another top Melbourne public high school, Auburn High School, median house prices don’t drop below $1 million.

In the suburb of Malvern, which is in Auburn High School’s catchment zone, the median house price is a cool $2.4 million and $645,000 for a unit. On the flip side the median rent for a house in the same suburb is $845 and $410 per week for a unit.

Similarly, for Matthew Pearce Public School in Sydney’s Baulkham Hills, the median house price in zoned Winston Hills is $1.09 million and $699,000 for a unit, while renting families will be paying $550 per week for a house and $510 for a unit.

In the school catchment zone of Melbourne’s Balwyn High School, houses have price tags above $1.8 million and $738,000 for a unit. Renting in Balwyn North, on the other hand, will cost parents $650 per week for a house and $480 for a unit.

“Renting is, in many cases but not always, cheaper than buying, so it could be a good alternative to get your children into a good school without having to fork out for a large mortgage,” said Mr Kusher.

“In saying that, you should do the sums because you may find with low mortgage rates the difference between renting and buying in some areas might be negligible.”

Parents are going to extreme measures for top schools

Top public schools are a major drawcard for house hunters in certain suburbs, according to head of department – property manager Jellis Craig Sam Nokes.

Mr Nokes has met with many parents wanting to rent and buy a property within popular school catchment zones and said mum and dad will compromise on many lifestyle factors to give their children the best opportunities in life.

“Take my brother and sister-in-law for example – their number one criteria when moving was to be within a certain school zone. It didn’t matter what the house was, or any of the other details, as long as it was within the school zone,” Mr Nokes said.

“They didn’t want to be in Camberwell, but they made the decision to be there because that was within the zone of the school they wanted their son and daughter to go to.”

Parents are willing to compromise on what they want from a home to get their children into top public schools. Picture:

A school usually only requires a utilities bill or proof of a lease as proof of address.

Mr Nokes said it is common for parents to rent a property and not actually live in it just to get into a school catchment zone – a tactic frowned upon by principals.

“Take for example McKinnon Secondary College – it rose in prominency very, very quickly, in about 2009/2010. We had people rush to get into McKinnon for the next school year,” Mr Nokes said.

“Rent shot up by nearly 15%. You could be on one side of the road and on the other side was a 15-20% price difference.

“We had people go and rent a one-bedroom flat in the zone, never live in it, stay living where they were, but [McKinnon Secondary College] had too many students enrolled, so it actually had to hire someone who go and door knock properties to see if people were living there.”

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