Living and Renovating in Sydney

Spectacularly situated on the world's largest natural harbour, Sydney enjoys a myriad of natural and man-made attractions and is full of opportunities for renovators.

A man and women sitting on couches in renovated Sydney living room.
ARTICLE Persephone Nicholas IMAGES Peter Willett Associates

Home to more than 100 beaches, as well as some of Australia’s most iconic landmarks including the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, Sydney is Australia’s oldest, largest and most populous city.

Sydney’s original inhabitants were the local Aboriginals who lived here for at least 50,000 years before the Europeans arrives. A new era began when Captain James Cook sailed into Botany Bay in 1770 and claimed the East Coast of Australia for King George III. Nearly two decades passed before the British convicts who were deported from their homeland and sailed from Portsmouth with the First Fleet in 1787 arrived. The humble prison settlement grew as the convicts earned their freedom and Sydney’s community and economy prospered.

The discovery of gold in 1851 drew prospectors from as far afield as China, Europe and North America and the gold rush created a building boom that brought even greater wealth to Sydney and its multicultural inhabitants.

The vibrant and cosmopolitan city we know today embraces a rich blend of architectural styles. There are still plenty of buildings, particularly in the city’s centre, dating back to the Victorian era, many featuring the warm hues and characteristic texture of the local sandstone. Other styles include Federation, Arts and Crafts, Georgian, Regency, Art Deco, Italianate, Queen Anne and the modernist style that evolved post World War II.

There’s a wealth of properties for renovators to choose from but, at the time of writing, prices are high – Sydney’s median house price is now $1.1 million. Some analysts forecast a drop in prices in 2016, so it remains vital for renovators, particularly those planning to resell in a short time-frame, to plan and budget appropriately for their renovation.

Circular glass door window looking into renovated industrial styled kitchen with 6 burners

House or unit?

If you’re buying a property to renovate and live in, your choice will probably be dictated by your lifestyle and budget. If you’re renovating for profit, there are other factors to take into account. For example, while units are typically less expensive, it’s important to select a property type that will appeal to buyers in your area. In some parts of Sydney, units or apartments will be in strong demand from young professionals, in others there will be more families looking for homes. If in doubt, consult one or two of the local real estate agents and ask what kind of property – and features – are in greatest demand.

Renovated open plan living area flowing out into outdoor patio.

Wise counsel

Whether you’re planning a large or small renovation, the City of Sydney website is a great resource and features an interactive buildings tool, which shows the changes you can make without planning or building approval. Find out more at the City of Sydney website.

Local councils often provide duty planners to answer questions from the public free of charge. Check if your local council provides this service. It’s also worth noting that councils’ development control plans are generally available online, so you can glean an understanding of what is – and isn’t – allowed in your area.

Renovated Sydney living room with glass bi-fold doors leading out onto front porch

Designing for Sydney’s climate

Sydney enjoys a sub-tropical climate; summers are warm and although winters can feel cool, sunny days are plentiful. When planning any renovation, designing for the climate helps reduce the need for heating and cooling. These account for around 40% of household energy costs  so there are big savings to be made, particularly when smart design is complemented with effective insulation.

Renovated outdoor Sydney home with indoor-outdoor floor and outdoor room.

Sustainable solutions

According to Green Villages, there is plenty renovators can do to minimise the environmental impact of their build. Working with your site, for example, by considering how to make the most of natural light and airflow, should be a priority. The site also recommends salvaging and re-using materials from the existing building, such as brick and timber, wherever possible. If you don’t need them yourself, consider offering them to others via Gumtree or one of Sydney’s many Freecycle groups.

Government website, Your Home, counsels renovators to be diligent in their site analysis and prioritise passive solar heating and cooling. It also recommends avoiding overuse of glazing and ensuring windows are optimally sized and oriented – and shaded when appropriate. There are recommendations for construction methods and insulation too.

Bare living room with wooden floors and sliding glass doors leading to backyard and outdoor pool.

Tips from the top

Peter Willett of Peter Willet Associates, a residential architectural practice in Sydney, says planning out an entire project beforehand is the key of a successful renovation: ‘Most people do it in bits and pieces as the need arises, but it’s much cheaper to do it at an early stage rather than planning as you go.’ He also recommends employing a residential quantity surveyor to cost renovation plans. ‘They work independently and will give you a breakdown of where the cots are going to be,’ he says.

Renovated Sydney kitchen with side doors leading out to outdoor room.

Renovation or restoration?

When working with period properties, Willett advises renovators to be clear about what they want to achieve. ‘There’s a difference between restoration and renovation. In any individual house there could be aspects of both going on. You might not be able to restore a house to its original condition, and reinforce them so the result is more than the sum of the parts.’

Renovated outdoor room with kitchen and dinning table.

Top trends

A return to rooms – open-plan living remains popular, but there are benefits to keeping some areas, such as kitchens, separate from the main living space.

Sculleries are making a comeback – a dedicated space for the messier aspects of food preparation and storage of large appliances makes sense in larger homes.

Resort-style bathrooms are sought after – people want a resort-style experience with more space and luxury features, such as freestanding baths or access to the outdoors.

‘Flexible’ houses – people want homes that will evolve in keeping with their needs e.g. some may want accommodation for adult offspring still living at home, others may prefer to adapt their existing space rather than downsize.

Renovate Magazine Logo

This article by Persephone Nicholas featured in Issue 018 of Renovate Magazine. Renovate Magazine is an easy to use resource providing fresh inspiration and motivation at every turn of the page.

Get in touch with Refresh to discuss your home renovation project

If you would like to discuss options and ideas for renovating in Sydney, please use the enquiry form on this page to provide us with your contact details. We will get in touch with you at a time that suits you to discuss your project. If you would like to provide us with more information about your project, we have a more comprehensive enquiry form on our "Get in touch" page too.

*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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