Real Estate Rant

In Melbourne (indeed, in most of Australia), property has traditionally been sold through auctions.  House auctions were rare when I lived in Canada, but they've been common in Australia in all my eleven years here.  They helped fuel a boom:  property values have always gone up since I moved here, and I reckon it's partly due to some bidding wars happening almost as soon as a good property hits the market.

The boom continued through the global financial crisis which saw house prices crash in the United States and the United Kingdom, with Melbourne house prices growing quickly though 2009 and the first half of 2010.  Things started slowing down halfway through last year.  More and more auctions occurred without any bidders present.    Or there were bidders, but the auction was passed in:  meaning the highest bid wasn't high enough to satisfy the seller.  The seller has a minimum number called a reserve, which needs to be surpassed at auction to avoid passing in.

My one and only experience with auctions is with the house which I am currently renting in Kensington.  The owners have decided to sell, and I was dying of curiosity to see the result.  So I came along to the Saturday afternoon auction.

Fortunately, one of my friends who has way more auction experiences than me was there.  He talked me through it.  The first thing he said was that he was surprised how few people there were.  Successful auctions have nearly one hundred people present.  This one had barely twenty people, and I recognised most of them as neighbours with a passing curiosity for either real estate in general or this house in particular.

The auction started.  "Can we start the bidding at $720,000?"  That sounded weird to me:  I knew they wanted $800,000 to $900,000 for this place (I was later told the reserve was $810,000).  Why would the auction start at such a ridiculously low price?

The auctioneer went on:  "The auction starts at $720,000.  Going up in increments of $10,000, the bidding starts at $720,000.  Any bids of $720,000?  How about $730,000?"  I must have missed something:  the price had already gone up and I didn't see or hear anyone bid.  "That's normal," says my friend.  "Nobody has bid yet."

The auctioneer goes on:  "$730,000?  Increments of $10k.  Does anybody want to bid $730k?  How about $740k?"  Now I know I've missed something, but my friend assures me a second time that nobody has bid.  The auctioneer pleads for $740,000, looks discouraged, goes inside (my home!) to discuss with the vendors, comes back after a few minutes and asks for $750,000!  After a few more pleads, he says the auction has passed in and thank you all very much everyone for coming.

Of course nobody bid!  A bid would have been like lifting up a big red flag with the word "sucker" on it.  A bid would have said "I want this place so badly that I'm willing to go through a bidding war when the place has just hit the market."  Any bid in the $700k - $800k range would have been greeted with "Oh, so you are interested enough to pay that sort of money for this place.  Let's see if we can bring you up to the even higher price which the owners really want."  And a negotiation process would have started.  I am sure auctions get great results for great houses, but they seem like a waste of time for crumbling little fixer-uppers like this one.

The funny part is that I suspect there were interested parties in the crowd.  Parties in a position to walk away from the deal, who figured they could sit tight and wait for the owner to sweat a bit.  When this house has been on the market for a while, an offer much lower than $810k will seem much sweeter to the sellers.

I never go to auctions:  I think they are a waste of time.  If there are bidders, they'll push the price up higher than it should be.  I bought a house in February 2011.  The same house had passed in at auction in November 2010, then stayed on the market for months (probably because the house's price was too high to begin with).  Unlike at an auction, I was in the driver's seat of the negotiation, and managed to get a bit of a bargain for it (by Melbourne standards).

Melbourne's crazy property market won't crash (at least, the chief economist where I work makes some pretty convincing arguments as to why it won't crash).  It will, however, slow down enough for people's salaries to catch up to it.  The fact that the buyers are fed up with these farcical auctions is definitely encouraging to those looking to buy.  Buyers who think they can barely afford a place of their own just need to be patient, look for fixer-uppers which have been on the market for a while and steer clear of auctions.

L'oeil du tigre


Melbourne is full of people who want to impress my wife, Anne, with their French connections.  It might be because France is considered to be so posh and exotic over here, and they want to demonstrate they are also a little bit posh and well-travelled.  Or they've been putting France up on a pedestal and  they see Anne as their connection to this mythical Shangri-La full of great food, latin lovers and medieval chateaux.

Whatever the reason, there's always someone at a party pointing out the nice cheese to my wife.  Or people she's just met telling her about their one trip to France.  Or telling her about their French friends.  Or telling her about some French food they've cooked or tasted.

Once, while trying to book a music  therapist, the person at the other end of the line asked where Anne was from.  Upon learning Anne is French, she asked "Can I sing some French opera for you?"  Before Anne could answer, she was listening to very loud French singing through the phone.  When it was done, she gave a polite "That was very good", followed by a "How old are you?"  It was a grown woman at the other end of the line.

One day, our Local Sticky Beak (=nosy neighbour) was sitting at an outdoor café.  She stopped Anne, who was walking by.

Local Sticky Beak:  "Oh hello, I forget your name again" (note:  this is how every conversation with LSB starts)  "Oh, Anne, that's right.  I'd like to introduce you to my friend.  She has a very French name:  it's Adrienne."

Wife:  "That's true, that is a very French name, though not necessarily from my generation.  In fact, whenever people from my generation hear that name, the first thing they think of is Rocky One."  Then she screwed up her mouth to the right, curled her upper lip and gave her best "Yo Adrienne" Rocky impression.

LSB practically choked on her latté.

McDonald's party

 The best part of sending our kids to a special school for autistic kids, in my opinion, is meeting the other parents.  Whenever there's a school recital or a bring-your-parents-to-school day, we think nothing of seeing a kid (ours or someone else's) having a massive meltdown, or stimming, or running away.  We all have a big laugh about it or ignore it completely, as the situation warrants.  No awkward silences, nosey questions or bewildered misunderstandings:  we all understand autism enough to deal with the usual autistic things.  Everything seems so normal here.

The best example of our mutual understanding was around this time last year, when Gaston went to a classmate's birthday party.  Our first classroom birthday party, it was to be on a Saturday afternoon at a McDonald's near the school.  The little girl having the party, it turns out, is a twin.  And her twin, also autistic, wasn't in Gaston's class, so his class also got invited to the party.  There were over a dozen autistic kids at this party!

At one point, I noticed the McDonald's staff members trying to engage the kids in some sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game, and getting absolutely no love for their effort.  The kids were just playing in the children's play area, melting down when they were given the wrong colour of balloon (or maybe that was just Gaston) and eating ice cream cake.  Basically just acting like autistic kids.

I approached the birthday twins' mother and jokingly said "Look at those poor teenagers trying to get the kids to play an organised game.  Didn't you tell them the kids are autistic?  Ha ha."  She gave me a conspiratorial smile and said "No, I didn't."  We both burst out laughing.

Western Autistic School

The school logo is a student's drawing of a Melbourne tram


The school year has just started.  If that sounds a little bit strange to my northern hemisphere readers, remember that it's summer over here in Melbourne, Australia.  The summer holiday between school years starts just before Christmas and ends around the start of February.  This year, school started on Friday 4 February 2011.  And no, it's not customary to start the school year on a Friday:  we all think it's weird, too.

I have previously blogged about our attempts to send our kids to regular preschools.  It only seems fitting, at the start of the school year, to talk about Western Autistic School, the public school which caters to the autistic school-starters in the western suburbs of Melbourne (website is here: http://www.westernautisticschool.vic.edu.au/).

Autism is perfectly normal here:  you would think nothing of seeing a kid stimming, or melting down, or having his hand held tightly by a staff member out of fear he might run away.  There's a trampoline in the gym.  There are electric hand dryers in each bathroom, because many autistic kids are scared to death of noisy hand dryers and they need to become accustomed to the infernal machines.  Bike riding lessons and toilet-training are often a big part of the first year's curriculum.  There is not one big schoolyard where a kid might get lost in a crowd:  instead, there are multiple small playgrounds where small groups can be closely supervised.

The classes are small:  any classroom will have 6 to 8 students (usually just six), two teachers and one teacher's aide.  That's a staff-to-student ratio of 1 to 3!  There are onsite speech therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists, all working full-time.  Some of the staff have been working with autistic kids for decades.

With so many staff members on hand, the school spends a lot of time matching students to the right classroom.  Little Johnny screams all the time and little Timmy has a tantrum every time someone screams?  It might be best not to put them both in the same classroom, then.  That might seem like common sense, but it's not the sort of problem which is likely to be diagnosed and fixed in a traditional school environment with 1 to 20+ staff-to-student ratio.

The place is a like an Alcatraz island for autistic kids:  not even my two little Houdinis could escape it.  The knobs on the doors are so high that shorter-than-average adults struggle to reach them.  To get in and out of the schoolyard, one needs to pass through a veritable labyrinth of gates, again with the latches so high that no child could reach them.

Shopping and cooking are part of the weekly curriculum.  My first instinct about the cooking lessons was to dismiss them as a waste of time:  they are "soft skills" which the kids would eventually pick up anyway.  But the teachers work on language throughout the whole lesson.  Plus they have used the lessons to help Rémi overcome his squeamishness about certain textures.  They've also used them to help Gaston try foods he wouldn't normally touch with a ten foot pole (crazy foreign foods, such as rice).

In fact, everything which is done in this school seems to revolve around language development.  Even lunch and recess are opportunities to learn language and social skills.  With such a high staff to student ratio, there is always someone watching them and helping them learn how to play appropriately.  We've heard reports of Gaston pushing other kids—a problem which the staff addressed almost immediately.  More recently, Rémi surprised me when my friend Julie came around for a visit and he looked her square in the eye, waved and said "Hi Julie".  He definitely didn't learn that from his Mom and Dad.

The school does a lot of excursions, many of them to local parks, shopping centres and grocery stores.  The school does other educational excursions, too:  to the museum, to the zoo, to the airport.  But for the most part, the staff teach the students about everyday life:  how to behave at a mall's food court, for example.  I reckon this has had a huge part in helping my boys behave in public places.

Every child has an individual learning plan.  When Rémi went through a phase of having a meltdown every time we went to McDonald's, we told his teachers.  So they made a point of going to the local McDonald's once a week.  And, just to make us out to be liars, Rémi behaved perfectly.  The staff did eventually witness some of the bad behaviour, though, and I think they have contributed greatly to its eventual taming.  Similarly, when Gaston went through a phase of screeching every time we told him not to do something, we put our heads together with his teachers to devise a plan to overcome the problem.  We're still working on it, but he has come a long way.

The school's ultimate goal is to place every child into a regular primary school by the end of their fourth year of school.  It's not possible to place every child, but the staff is certainly trying.  Anne and I went to a parent-teacher session which was all about the eventual placement into a conventional school.  It was a real eye opener:  we would need to find a school ourselves, and not every school could cope with an autistic child (this will be the subject of a later blog).  Gaston's teachers reckon he'll be ready for placement by the end of his fourth year (he's now starting his third year).  To help him along, Gaston occasionally does some traditional classroom learning with a 1 to 20 staff to student ratio.  It's only a couple of hours each week, to get the kids accustomed to the conventional teaching style.

Years ago, when it became obvious that Gaston and Rémi would not be able to go to a conventional school, I had to get over the stigma of sending my boys  to "special school".  What made things more difficult was the fact that Melbourne adults are obsessed with schools—it's a British way of thinking, and I'm glad I didn't grow up with that sort of snobbery.  I got over it quickly and did what was right for the boys, and boy am I glad I did:   the non-stop teaching, the special facilities, the specialised staff, the personalised education plans, the regular excursions…  The combination of all these things must work.  Both my boys' language skills have developed immensely since they started school, and they've learned a lot of social skills.  They've got a long way to go if we expect them to go to a conventional school, but I have faith this school is right for them.