Cashed-up buyers from Auckland, Tauranga and Rotorua looking to retire could be fuelling Kawerau's property boom, long-term locals say.
Median house prices in the Bay of Plenty town have skyrocketed almost 200 per cent in a decade. In 2011, the town's median house price was $108,000. Now prices have climbed above $300,000.
One real estate agent said one residential home sold for more than $800,000 - the biggest sale he is aware of in the town.
REINZ chief executive Bindi Norwell said Kawerau had seen strong growth in median house prices in the last nine years.
Median prices in Kawerau jumped 200.9 per cent from $108,000 for the three months ending December 2011 to $325,000 for the same period in December 2020.
"This is the largest percentage increase for any district in the Bay of Plenty," Norwell said.
Nationally, Kawerau ranked fourth for median price growth percentage in nine years.
However, the first three rankings were small districts with a low number of sales.
"As house prices increase across the country, buyers have been looking for more affordable properties in the regions, which the Bay of Plenty and more specifically the Kawerau district have been able to offer," she said.
"Kawerau is central to Rotorua and Whakatāne, meaning it has easy access to the many nearby lakes to the west and the coastal beaches to the east.
"It is a great option for both retirees and young families looking for a more affordable lifestyle."
Harcourts agent Lewis Ramsay, who specialises in Kawerau property, said a house sold recently for more than $800,000.
"It was a massive property and just a few years old. It had exceptionally large garaging for a motor home. It was backed on to a park-like reserve."
It was the biggest residential sale for Kawerau so far, he said. "There was a brand new one on a half section before Christmas that sold at $680,000."
Ramsay said houses in Kawerau had always been undervalued.
"There was a bit of a stigma and negativity about Kawerau 10 to 15 years ago but that's all changed.
"Once people starting moving out of bigger cities they found Kawerau. It hasn't stopped since about 2015."
Ramsay said he had seen some "massive increases" in house prices since he began selling in the area in 2001.
He said a lot of people had been selling up from Auckland, Tauranga and Rotorua.
"Definitely a lot more retirees have moved in there since 2015 ... back then it was probably $150,000, now those are closer to $400,000 and they've put money in the bank and bought a campervan.
"There's a lot of campervans in Kawerau, that's for sure."
Kawerau mayor Malcolm Campbell has lived in the town for 65 years and said rising house prices was good news for the town.
The big issue, he said, was the town's house prices were "just so low".
"Ten years ago it was just ridiculous, there was only one way for house prices to go and they couldn't get any lower."
But Campbell said the town's house prices had a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the country.
"We're still about $200,000 below par."
Campbell said people moving or returning to Kawerau were also pushing up the prices.
"For young people getting on to the property ladder, it's a great opportunity for them to come to Kawerau," he said.
"It's an affordable place. If you're cashed up in Auckland or Tauranga coming here with half a mil in your pocket you can live a pretty good life.
"That's basically what's happened."
Kawerau Golf and Squash Club manager Judy Paterson said it was cheaper to live in Kawerau but prices were still rising.
Paterson said there had been a lot of changes since she moved to the town 30 years ago, including the price of sections.
"About 20 years ago bare sections in Kawerau were going for between $2500 and $3000.
"Prices of sections today are selling between $140,000 and $170,000. It's because people are buying here," she said.
"Homes that have been bought have been modernised. It's really nice to see."
Paterson said it had to be good news for Kawerau.
"It's giving us positivity. This town to me is a hidden gem.
"All of a sudden it's come to light and we're making headlines because our house prices have tripled."
Paterson said the town got a lot of bad press but "the good outweighs the bad".
"I love it because the people are so friendly."
Former club manager Owen Enright said he had lived in Kawerau since the early 1970s after moving to the town from the small rural Auckland town of Waiuku.
"I just love the laid-back lifestyle of Kawerau," he said.
Enright worked as a contractor in the Matahina Forest near Kawerau and the local paper mill for years before retiring at age 64. He joined the local golf club about 1990.
The town's rising house prices were a reflection of people moving to Kawerau from the big smoke, Auckland, he said.
"We've got a lot of people that have sold up from Auckland and bought homes here.
"Homes are so cheap in Kawerau but when people are buying and selling homes the prices go up."
Executive director of Sequal Lumber, which operates a sawmill in Kawerau, David Turner, said house prices were rising across the country.
But in Kawerau, he said, it was a positive reflection of the town's leadership since 2012.
Turner said the mayor Malcolm Campbell had driven community interest and encouraged businesses to come together to create an environment that maximised possibilities for businesses to succeed.
"He should be proud of the amazing transformation in the community that has taken place.
"They were giving away houses in 2010. It's a reflection of confidence in the community."
Turner said the Kawerau Putauaki Industrial Development had also been a positive for employment in the town.
A $19.9 million investment from the Provincial Growth Fund to develop essential infrastructure for the Putauaki Trust Industrial Hub was announced in February last year.
The Kawerau Container Terminal will get a $9.6m cash injection, the Putauaki Trust roading extension and infrastructure will get $7.5m, while the Kawerau Off-Highway Road project will get a $2.8m investment.
The project is the result of more than a decade of planning work from Putauaki Trust, council and businesses, and was expected to create at least 150 jobs in Kawerau.
"That's been a real positive for our team," he said. "We've grown 100 per cent in the last five years."
Turner said Kawerau was a "real authentic" community.
"Kawerau offers people a slice of New Zealand as it was. It's a very authentic place where people really care about their community."
An employee at one of the largest employers in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, Oji Fibre Solutions - Tasman Mill, said he had lived in Kawerau for 40 years.
"The important thing about the mill is that we support the local contractors. A lot of people from Kawerau are working as contractors."
The employee, who did not wish to be named, said Kawerau was a "great place to be".
"The reason why people live here is because of all the amenities."