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Back yards shrinking but Kiwis still love the quarter-acre paradise, research shows

New Zealanders still have a major soft spot for the idea of the quarter-acre pavlova paradise, according to research commissioned by the country’s leading home improvement and building supply company, Mitre 10, but we’re finding more and more ways to maximise our ever-shrinking outdoor spaces.

The research surveyed more than 1,500 New Zealanders on their connection to the quarter-acre dream and asked their opinions on the size of back yards and what they were doing to make the most of them.

An overwhelming 84 per cent of respondents agreed that they liked the idea of the traditional Kiwi quarter-acre paradise – a large plot of land with a standalone house on it, with plenty of room outdoors, and almost all said they would rather live on the traditional quarter-acre section than in high-density housing with reduced outdoor living spaces.

Over half of respondents felt that their outdoor living space is smaller now than what they had growing up (53%). Fifty percent of respondents attributed this to sections of land getting smaller, while 35 per cent believe houses are getting bigger, so there’s less room on a section for an outdoor living space.

Data from QV confirms that the average house floor size is trending upwards, and has done so constantly over the past hundred years, except during the inter-war and Depression period; houses were an average of 131.7sq m in 1900 and grew to 205.3sq m in 2006 [i]. Auckland dominates in the large house size stakes, taking five of the top 10 spots. Shamrock Park, near Botany Downs, has the highest, with an average of 305sq m, while Arthur’s Pass takes the prize for the smallest average floor space at just 74sq m[ii].

Mitre 10 CEO Neil Cowie said the love of outdoor living spaces was consistent with what the company sees every day in its stores.

“We’ve seen for a long time that the home improvement and building market is going from strength to strength,” Mr Cowie said. “This just goes to show that New Zealanders are very attached to their living spaces and making the most of them – our houses really are our castles.”

The findings are echoed by Ann Dupuis, Associate Professor of Sociology at the School of People, Environment and Planning, and Regional Director at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University, who co-authored the report Future Intensive: Insights for Auckland’s housing[iii].

“New Zealanders have a dream of owning a standalone house with a spacious back yard, but there’s a significant disconnect between the dream and reality – particularly in Auckland,” Dr Dupuis said.

“While Kiwis might still aspire to that dream, their ability to acquire it is certainly diminishing. And this is happening at the same time as, for example, the Auckland Plan is encouraging the compact city and densification of housing.”

The Mitre 10 research showed that many New Zealanders would look to move to a property with more outdoor space if they shifted house, with 36 per cent agreeing and only 16 per cent wanting a smaller outdoor space or one with minimal maintenance. Southlanders are the happiest with their current living situations, while Aucklanders would like more space.

While New Zealanders clearly still love the big back yard, there’s evidence that Kiwis are, at the same time, looking to have a lower-maintenance lifestyle. Nearly 40 per cent of respondents have made a renovation decision that would help them avoid having to do maintenance for an outdoor living space – but 63 per cent did the work themselves or along with family and friends, showing that DIY really is in our DNA.

Mr Cowie said that Kiwis have taken action to make the most of the ever-shrinking back yard, looking to customise it to fit their preferences and lifestyle or just make the most of it.

“We know from the research that the most popular additions to the backyard are planters and pots, decking and fencing, and this is backed up by our sales data. There’s also the quintessential Kiwi BBQ, which New Zealanders are paying more for. The average spend on a BBQ is currently between $600 and $700, and that’s trending upwards as people demand top quality and increase their investment in their outdoor living spaces.”

The number of Kiwis viewing outdoor living spaces as an extension of the living room is confirmed by the 46 per cent of respondents who say they use the outdoor area for socialising and having drinks rather than sports or gardening. Those from Southland, Waikato and Wellington are the biggest socialisers and enjoy dining al fresco. This trend of home entertainment in the outdoors is set to continue as the rules around drinking and driving are set to continue tightening.

“In line with this trend of the outdoor living room, we’re seeing huge popularity in wicker outdoor furniture,” Mr Cowie said. “It’s a low-maintenance product and creates quite a stylish look. We expect to see double-digit growth for wicker products this season and next year we are likely to have more wicker than wood in our outdoor furniture range for the first time.”

Dr Dupuis said there is strong research evidence to demonstrate that for homeowners, DIY is thriving in the Kiwi culture.

“Often that’s about the cost of getting work professionally done, but it’s also about the satisfaction we get out of creating our own home – and increasingly, the outdoor living space is a part of that. There’s a strong sense of creativity and joy in DIY; we’re living in a DIY culture, we’re surrounded by it all the time, as evidenced by the non-stop DIY programmes on TV and the proliferation of home and garden magazines. These things are very important influences in contemporary culture.

“Underpinning all this is a really strong idea that we hold about the importance of home and the meaning of home. That comes through in the creation of that environment and the idea of the home being a social environment and a place where we can express our identity.”