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The high price of this beachside paradise

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Imagine waking up to panoramic ocean views and hitting the beach for a stroll or a surf every morning before work. This is the reality for many expats who have relocated to Sydney, Australia.

By far, the city's biggest appeal is its coastal lifestyle, year-round ideal weather and bucket-list attractions like the iconic Opera House and Bondi Beach. Sydney is also a great launch pad to explore Australia's other natural draw cards like the Blue Mountains and the Great Barrier Reef.

“There wouldn’t be many major global capital cities that have such beautiful beaches close to their doorstep,” said Mathew Tiller, the national research manager for Australian real estate agency LJ Hooker.

This lifestyle comes at a high cost, though. Sydney consistently ranks in the top five most expensive cities in the world to live. It's a place where banana prices can hit A$9 ($8.36) a kilo and a one-way train ride in town costs almost A$4 ($3.72). For expats, Sydney's far-flung location can also make a trip home a pricey 26-hour endeavour, with return airfares to cities such as London and New York around A$2,145 ($2,000) or more.

Yet achieving the Aussie lifestyle is well worth the cost, many expats say, as a skilled-labour shortage and variety of work visas make finding a job down under within reach. Here’s how to get settled into this city by the sea.

Housing

When looking for that ocean-view apartment, remember: rent in Sydney is advertised as price-per-week because it is paid fortnightly. So, if something appears inexpensive, multiply it to get the monthly rate.

Tiller said a large, brand-new one-bedroom apartment in Sydney's eastern suburbs, comprising Bondi, Bronte and Tamarama beaches, will average A$800 ($743) per week, but there are many older, 1970s buildings available for less.

American expat Caitlin O’Malley, who has lived in Sydney for more than a year, pays A$350 ($325) per week for a room in a shared three bedroom apartment in Bondi, which she found through a friend.

“I paid the same price to rent in New York City, but I was living in a shoe box there that was fifteen minutes from the subway. Here, I live on the top floor with ocean views, so my money goes further, but it’s still as expensive,” O’Malley said.

Beyond the beach, Tiller said rental prices depend on proximity to the Central Business District, or CBD, the city’s main employment hub for office workers. In trendy inner city areas such as Surry Hills and Paddington — known for their vibrant art scene and restaurants — a two bedroom flat might go for A$700 ($651) per week. In Parramatta, a 40-minute train ride away, a similar property will cost A$400 ($372) per week.

You can find listings at real estate agents or on web sites such as GumTree.com.au or RealEstate.com.au. A popular local surf photography website, AquaBumps, also lists rentals.

Wages and Taxes

Working in Australia might mean making more money than you do at home, as local wages can sometimes be higher for a comparable job overseas. This helps account for the high price of living. O’Malley said her annual salary at global digital media agency VML, where she works as a social media manager, is $20,000 higher in Australia than it was in the US for the same position.

As of July 1, minimum wage went up by 3% to A$16.87 ($15.68) per hour. Jobs in the hospitality sector Australia-wide can pay even more than that: around A$25 ($23.24) for your average cafe position, expat Marina Dreher from Ulm, Germany, said.

“You can earn a lot of money here and there are lots of opportunities in areas that need experienced people from overseas,” Dreher said. “Speaking multiple languages is definitely attractive for prospective employers, even in hospitality as there are so many tourists.”

Vibrant job market

The state of New South Wales, where Sydney is located, has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports. Still, a vibrant job market doesn’t guarantee positions for everyone.

“…Landing a job depends on how qualified you are,” said Kathy Nunn co-owner of Aussierelocation.com. “Compared to the rest of the world it’s quite attractive in terms of finding a job, but you have to have the right skills,” Nunn said.

Once you have a valid work visa, you’ll must apply for a Tax File Number online through the Australian Tax Office website (www.ato.gov.au) to avoid paying the highest tax rate of 45%.

Income of less than A$18,200 ($16,913) in the 2013-2014 year is not taxed, according to the ATO. After that, tax brackets apply. The $18,200 to $37,000 income bracket is taxed at A$0.19 ($0.18) for each dollar, for example. That’s low in comparison to living in Amsterdam, which has the highest tax rate in Europe.

Remember the Australian tax year runs from July 1 to June 30 and you may be required to file taxes in both your home country and down under.

The Job Hunt

Skill shortages across Australia in industries like health and engineering have led to a thriving migration programme that seeks to attract foreigners with particular qualifications, experience and languages. You can check the government’s Skilled Occupation List, to see if your profession is eligible for a work visa.

Otherwise, the country’s Working Holiday Visa (subclass 417) permits people from 19 different countries, including Japan and Canada, who are between the ages of 18 and 30 to hold several jobs during a 12-month period, as long as they don’t work more than six months under a single employer. Ten countries, including Poland and Chile, are eligible for the Work and Holiday Visa (462), which is similar, except there isn’t a possibility to extend an additional year as there is with the subclass 417 visa.

The means of finding a job are myriad. Nunn recommends applying for senior positions before getting to Sydney. However, it’s easiest to find casual or unskilled work after you've arrived.

Dreher joined a “German expats living in Australia” group through Xing, the German version of LinkedIn. Once she arrived in Sydney, Dreher used the online network to find a job at a cafe across the street from her house. A few months later, she was hired to fill a travel agent position by one of her regular customers who operated a campervan rental company. Her new employer went on to sponsor her subclass 457 visa, which lasts four years and is eligible for renewal. She hopes to stay in Australia long-term.

 Securing sponsorship can be a laborious, and stressful process that can take months, O’Malley said, and it doesn’t always guarantee a job. Her employer offered her the possibility of sponsorship, but the visa took months to receive approval through the company’s global headquarters in addition to the lengthy application process that followed.

“You have to prove that you have skills that other Australians [the company] interviewed don’t have,” O’Malley said. “Usually it’s pretty hard for people to get sponsored if they don’t have previous skills.”

She said she plans to stay in the country long-term.

Beyond networking, expats turn to recruitment agencies like Nakama, which fills roles in such industries as design and communications, and employment websites like Seek.com.au.

As for benefits, Australia offers competitive, retirement savings plans, called superannuation. Employers are required to contribute 9.5% of an employee's base salary before tax to an approved fund. Not planning on staying for the long haul? Temporary residents can apply to reclaim their superannuation funds after they’ve left Australia.

Australian residents receive four weeks of paid annual leave based on their ordinary work hours. Those with either a partner visa (granted to those in a de facto relationship with an Australian citizen) or permanent visa also qualify for paid parental leave at AUD $641.05 ($595.81) per week before tax for a maximum of 18 weeks.

Health Care

To qualify for a visa, health coverage is required. Australia offers a publicly funded universal healthcare scheme called Medicare, which most residents are eligible for, but not all.

Eleven countries have reciprocal agreements, which qualifies foreign residents from these countries for subsidised medical services: this is good news for people relocating from the UK and Sweden, for example.

Those from countries without a reciprocal agreement, however, can buy private health care in Australia or possibly rely on their health insurance plan back home, depending on the plan. Basic private health insurance in Australia through companies like BUPA and HCF might cost AUD $100 ($92.92) per month depending on the extent of coverage.

Residents who do not qualify for the reciprocal health care agreement may apply for the Medicare Levy Exemption: a 1.5% tax charged for Australian Medicare. If you don’t file the exemption before you return to your home country, you can file for it later. 

Without insurance, paying for a general doctor’s visit will cost around AUD $80 ($74.34) plus the cost of medications.

No Worries Lifestyle

While a cocktail at Sydney Harbour might cost you A$25 ($23.24), there are many ways to live well for less, such as enjoying the outdoors on the weekend and saving that night-out for a weekday evening when pubs offer discounts.

Despite the costs, the Aussie “no worries, mate” way of life attracts Dreher.

 “In Germany everyone is stressed out… here, there’s more balance between work and private life,” Dreher said. “Australians are hard-working, but they also treat themselves well by enjoying the sunshine and going for hikes.”

Does she feel a pull to her home country? “A lot of family and friends have visited, so I don’t feel the need to go home,” O'Malley said.