Helicopter rides and a wealthy contact list: inside Australia’s luxury real estate market of $60m-plus homes

<span>While big sales might be concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne, each state has its own ‘millionaire rows’.</span><span>Photograph: Image Factory</span>
While big sales might be concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne, each state has its own ‘millionaire rows’.Photograph: Image Factory

Gowan Stubbings can still remember the rush of his first sale 20 years ago. It was a one-bedroom apartment in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda that went for $110,000.

“Things have changed,” he laughs. “It’s a pretty dynamic industry.”

Now Stubbings is the executive director of Melbourne’s most prominent luxury real estate agency, Kay & Burton. He shows prospective buyers mansions by helicopter and has the numbers of the city’s rich and powerful in his phone. And last year he sold Huntingfield – a mansion in the wealthy Melbourne suburb of Toorak – reportedly for over $60m.

While many Australians are struggling with high interest rates or increasing rents, Australia’s luxury property market is booming – so much so that Stubbings says his company is short on stock.

“What we’re seeing is consistent strength,” he says. “I just can’t say anything bad about it.

“It’s an aspirational sector of the marketplace that people want to play in and it still chugs along really well. It’s beautiful at the moment.”

Stealth wealth on steroids

Stubbings is tall, wears a perfectly tailored suit and speaks with the calm confidence of a man used to flipping million-dollar estates.

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Kay & Burton’s head office in Toorak has panoramic views of the city. Outside are rows of mansions on leafy-lined streets and luxury apartments bigger than most average houses. As Stubbings speaks, a fog rolls over the cityscape behind him.

The majority of clients want sales that happen quickly and quietly, he says. It’s stealth wealth on steroids and many of the transactions are off-market.

“A lot of sales that we do people don’t even know about,” Stubbings says. “We’re very discreet in how we operate. That’s what our business was set around.”

His clients are older Melburnians who are downsizing to luxury apartments, or moving to the countryside. They’re captains of industry, or tech titans who have made new fortunes; they’re expats coming home or wealthy foreigners wanting to move here, he says.

The homes he sells come with five, six, or seven bedrooms. They have tennis courts, sweeping gardens, gyms, saunas, indoor swimming pools and entertainment rooms. Many houses even have their own names.

At this price point, Stubbings is offering more than just a listing.

If a prospective buyer wants a reservation at the exclusive fine-dining restaurant Attika, they will get it. If they want to see the property by air – which Stubbings says is quite common – they’ll hire a helicopter.

If they’re flying in to see the mansion, they’ll need hotel bookings and restaurant recommendations. Stubbings is showing off the lifestyle and can even offer advice on enrolling children into the prestigious private schools in the area.

For those selling, the biggest drawcard is Stubbings’ established relationships throughout Melbourne’s most elite communities. Their numbers are in his phone; he calls when he knows he has a property they will love. And he troubleshoots quickly – if potential sellers need a particular-looking table or the right piece of art for their property, he’ll have it delivered within hours.

While Melbourne has pockets of luxury in other areas, Toorak and its surrounding suburbs still command the attention of the city’s elite, Stubbings says. “There’s a lot of people that aspire to live in Toorak.

“There are some beautiful, old grand homes. There are beautiful, big, wide streets. They’re always on big blocks of lands, with beautiful gardens. They always command respect.”

Selling in Melbourne is different to Sydney, he says. His clients are discreet – they want the best money can buy and they want no one else to know.

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“I liken Melbourne to New York and Sydney to LA,” he says. “Melbourne, it is very old money, it’s traditional … Sydney is very flashy, new money.

“We’re the complete opposite. The elegance of what Melbourne has to offer is very different.

“That is such a Melbourne comment,” he says, before leaning in and quickly adding: “I love Sydney.”

Australia’s millionaire rows

Tim Lawless, the executive research director of CoreLogic’s Asia-Pacific division, says there’s no real definition of what price point is considered “luxury”, which can make tracking it hard. While big sales might be concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne, each state has its own “millionaire rows”.

“But it’s all relative to the local market,” Lawless says.

There have been high-end sales of coastal and riverfront Perth properties and homes along the Brisbane River or around the inner-city hills district. And in Sydney, properties going for upwards of $50m are on the harbourfront.

For years, harbourside suburbs in Sydney have been the most in-demand, Brad Pillinger, a luxury agent and the founder of Pillinger in Double Bay, says. “But in the last decade and a half, the beaches from Watsons Bay to Coogee have really come alive.

“The price point has jumped – 15 years ago, $20m was a landmark sale; now we have 15 of them at $20m+ a year, and in ever-expanding areas.”

Across the country, there have been 16 sales of properties over $60m – 13 of which have been in Sydney. The emerald city still holds the records.

Uig Lodge in Point Piper fetched a record-breaking $130m when it was bought by Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar in 2022. That record is expected to be doubled by Wingadal, the family home of John Symond, the founder of Aussie Home Loans.

The property is for sale and is anticipated to fetch $200m.

Wingadal is the size of four typical residential blocks; has six bedrooms, unobstructed views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a pool, a movie theatre, two commercial kitchens and an entertainment floor that can accommodate 500 guests. A video made to help sell it calls it “one of the world’s most significant homes” and refers to those that live there as “custodians”.

Pillinger, who has the listing for Windigal, says even now, between $10m and $35m is still “a normal” market in Sydney – and when you get past that, you’re moving into luxury.

“Prices are still increasing,” he says. “We had two and a half years of unprecedented growth and now in the last six to 12 months have [had] a more normalised rate of growth, so the doubling of prices every seven years.”

Lawless says you can probably “count the number of buyers on one hand” for a property like Windigal – so the sales campaigns need to be targeted. This market writes its own rules, he says.

“Interest rates themselves probably don’t really factor too much into very high-end luxury markets,” he says. “Nor does things like consumer sentiment… and consumer appetite to buy or sell homes as well.

“That’s a pretty good reason why luxury markets tend to be swimming in a different swim lane.”