Lights, heat, tension. The Barfoot & Thompson auction room is a gameshow, the gavel wielding auctioneer the show's charismatic host.

"Maybe a wave, maybe a nod, maybe a wink or simply call out the number," he instructs the nervous contestants. "Is that loud enough? It doesn't sound very loud . . ." And the magic number the audience is looking for? One. Million. Dollars. This is Who Wants to be a Millionaire- in real life.

In this auction room, a regular family can be transformed into millionaires - with a bit of help from a buoyant property market and a healthy line of credit from the bank.

Russian-born software developer Vlad Nikolsky, 36, is here with his beautiful blonde wife, Helga, 28, and young children, 6-year-old Alex and baby daughter Selena, aged just 10 months. In heated five-way bidding on a house in Blockhouse Bay, the family bow out at $510,000 but the bidding continues far beyond that.


"It was disappointing because we were hoping to buy this house with a bigger section," says Nikolsky, dejected. "I hoped the children would have room to play. Some people pay $1 million, but for usual people like me, it's not possible." Raymond Ng and his wife get closer. Bidding discreetly from a back corner of the room, the crewcut Ng offers $770,000 for a four-bedroom townhouse in Wairakei St, Greenlane, but it doesn't meet the reserve and the sale falls over.

One home tops the magic mark this morning: a five-bedroom concrete house on a back section overlooking the Ellerslie racecourse. There are two parties still bidding when one raises a hand for the big $1 million. There's no clapping, no cheering- the contest is tense. The vendors had brought up their teenage kids on the Ladies Mile property.

And the new owners, says auctioneer Murray Smith, are another family. During the auction they are sitting up front on the left, calm, professional - but that all changes when the gavel comes down at $1.075m.

Afterwards, Smith exclaims: "They were really excited." And well they might be - because that family have just become 21st century millionaires. They may not look like millionaires. They may not feel like it. But they (underwritten, no doubt, by their bank) are the proud owners of a million-dollar home.

Growing up, most of us imagined a millionaire as looking something like the bloke with the top hat on the Monopoly board, or Daddy Warbucks with his mansion and servants and adopted orphan Annie. But now it's just as likely to be a struggling middle-income family who aren't quite sure how they're going to pay for the kids' new school uniforms or the car insurance bill, never mind making the next mortgage payment.

Feeling like a million bucks today is such a 60s thing. You now need an awful lot more to be deemed wealthy. Someone earning the average wage in 1960 would have had to

work for 540 years to make their first million. By comparison, one of today's average wage earners would have to work only 18 years. Shamubeel Eaqub, principal economist with the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, calls it "the money illusion".

"Because the cost of living has gone up, the dollar you had 50 years ago doesn't buy you much, in terms of goods and services. Between generations, what you get is so much erosion of the value of money, you need a new benchmark." Essentially, that million-dollar benchmark is now set at $30 million, says Eaqub. "That's a big number - but that's what a million meant back then."

Today's adults will remember the Monopoly millionaire with his white moustache and top hat. Today, that top hat is effectively priced at $30m - even Trevor of Te Kauwhata, with his $26.6 million PowerBall jackpot, is not worth as much as one of those millionaires of yesteryear.

Some things have stayed the same. In the 60s, you either had to be really lucky, or work really hard to achieve that sort of wealth, says Eaqub. And so it is today. Luck back then came for some via the Golden Kiwi lottery, introduced in 1961. First prize was £12,000 (equivalent to nearly $500,000.) According to NZ History online, the winnings then would have bought the lucky ticketholder a three-bedroom house in a middle-class Wellington suburb, a new six-cylinder car and left a bit of spare cash on the side.

The Golden Kiwi was the ticket to dreams for many New Zealanders for almost three decades. Then, in 1987, along came Lotto, with an initial first division prize of $359,808. It didn't take long for Lotto to reach the million-dollar mark: the first individual Lotto prize over that magic figure was won on September 19, 1987, when a ticket bought in Hamilton won its owner $1,098,563. With those sorts of prizes on offer, Golden Kiwi's days were clearly numbered: the final Golden Kiwi draw was August 30, 1989.

If luck doesn't do it for you, maybe property will. At least 35,000 properties are currently estimated to be worth $1 million or more, says Jonno Ingerson, research director for property valuers But you would be advised to go north to seek your fortune via that route: 20,000 of those properties are in the Auckland region.

Specifically, nine suburbs within Auckland have houses with an average $1 million price estimate, says Ingerson: Herne Bay ($1,855,611), St Mary's Bay ($1,477,278), Parnell ($1,339,000), Epsom ($1,134,389), Stanley Point ($1,090,222), Remuera ($1,085,944), Takapuna ($1,080,333), Mission Bay ($1,046,667) and Devonport ($1,001,833). Ponsonby, at $964,333, just fails to make the grade. The first area outside Auckland to reach for these heights is Wellington's Lowry Bay-it hit Number 14 on the list at $933,444.

Clearly, we've come a long way from 1994, when a Bassett Rd, Remuera, house sold for $1,140,000, believed to be a New Zealand first.

The number of million-dollar properties has dropped in some other areas, including Tauranga, the number in Auckland has grown, says Ingerson. "Now there are more than there were at the peak of the market in 2007."

These estimates are backed up by real estate agency Barfoot & Thompson, which says it sold 676 homes for more than $1m in 2011, compared to 526 in the previous year.

Barfoot & Thompson managing director Peter Thompson said significant factors contributing to the increase in million-dollar homes were investment owners upgrading and modernising properties, and new homesbeing built that targeted the top end of the market.

So who wants to be a millionaire? It depends how you look at it. John Fredrickson and Sue Simpson were sitting pretty in the country's second most expensive spot of St Mary's Bay. Their property - a three-bedroom, century-old villa they'd bought in 1998 for $558,000 - had a CV of $1.4 million and no mortgage over it.

That didn't mean the living was easy: there was the never-ending issue of maintenance. As well, the couple had a holiday home in Mangawhai which still had a mortgage.

"We decided we wanted a bit of money out - to put towards Mangawhai and to travel," says Simpson. The house was 14 months on the market before it finally sold at auction this year for $1 million, $400,000 below CV.

The couple now live in the less salubrious suburb of Western Springs. They bought a townhouse for $730,000 and are happy. The townhouse is insulated - something the previous property was not.

"We've reduced our debt," says Frederickson. Aswell,therates arelower-andthe crime rate too (they had been burgled in St Mary's Bay and lost many possessions, says Fredrickson). Technically, the couple are worth more than a million, but they don't see themselves as such. Both are still working.

"The word millionaire sounds wonderful, but it doesn't mean what it did," says Simpson. "We don't class ourselves as well-off."

Peter (he doesn't want to use his surname) is another millionaire. Not that he sees himself as such. He won $1,040,000 in Lotto seven years ago. At the time, he was 43 and sharing rental accommodation.

The win enabled him to buy his own home: a nice property in Auckland's Pt Chevalier, for which he paid $800,000 in 2007. He then spent more money doing it up. And that pretty much chewed up all his winnings. "I realised quite quickly that a million wasn't going to go that far and that I wasn't going to be able to retire."

He's still working in his white collar job and he still has some cash stashed away, which he hopes to invest in a rental property. He says his home is probably worth the same as it was when he bought it. "I think I might have over-capitalised," he says. Winning Lotto has certainly made living a lot easier for Peter. "Having that peace of mind - a house that's paid for and no worries - that just makes you more carefree."

It has also enabled him to enjoy a few overseas trips. But he still travels economy class. Does he consider himself a millionaire? "Not really, no. If I had a million dollars in cash sitting in a bank account, I think I could, but I don't think of myself as a millionaire with money to burn."

Even that sort of win would not comeclose to takinghomethe sort of treats that Neil Graham has procured for himself. The ChristchurchbasedMainfreight co-founder last year forked out $3 million for the car of his dreams: an Aston Martin One-77. The supercar-believed to be the most expensive vehicle ever ordered by a Kiwi buyer-has a top speed of more than 350km/h. It is tailor-made to his own specifications: plaited red and black leather seats (for Canterbury, he says) and a black exterior.

Graham becomes positively poetic when extolling its driving virtues. "It's beautiful, heavenly -a work of art. It's as pretty and curvaceous as a ballerina." It might be in a class of its own, but it has to share the podium with a collection of other top-end vehicles in Graham's stable. How many cars does he have, then? "Buggered if I know. Somewhere near 10."

These include a Mercedes SL 65 AMG (valued at $950,000) and others in the Mercedes range. Even he found himself doing a double- take when he conducted the transaction for the AstonMartin. "I thought, 'that's more than I've ever paid for a car before'."

But it's not the money that, err, drives him to make these automotive purchases, he says. "It's the quality of the build and the uniqueness of them."

Had Graham baulked at the price, he could always have found himself a comparative bargain in a literal work of art. Hamish Coney, managing director of Auckland auction house Art+Object, says no million-dollar paintings are sold at public art auction in New Zealand but in 2010 his company brokered the private sale of a Colin McCahon multi-panel work for $1.45 million.

For most of us, the Aston Martins and Colin McCahon originals will remain forever beyond our reach. But the million-dollar home? Just maybe. Maybe not now, maybe not without an awful lot of help from the bank - but if New Zealand can boast 35,000 million-dollar properties now, the number will soon double, then triple. For now, homes are still available that barely make it into six digits. If you move to Lincoln St in Patea, south Taranaki, you would be looking at a top-end house with a 2009 capital value of $122,000.

That sum would barely buy you a garden shed in Herne Bay. But couples like Vlad and Helga Nikolsky will continue to work hard and aspire to bigger things. And soon, regular Kiwi families likes theirs will be able to live the million-dollar dream. "It depends on our salaries - we can't buy a million-dollar home now, obviously," saysVlad."But it is a dream, yes. It would be good for the kids."