August 18, 2017: State of The States

Hello again from warm and sunny Missoula, Montana. Having spent the last couple of weeks catching up with old friends, making plans, gathering materials, choosing colours and doing prep work for the renovations to my son’s house we’ve actually started to make some progress. We’ve torn out the horrible old carpet in the dining area and part of the living room, painted the ceiling and prepared the sub-floor. Tomorrow we’ll pick up the new flooring material and start getting it sanded, sealed and sanded again in preparation for laying. We’ve also started making repairs to the weatherboard cladding around the outside and preparing it for repainting. Next week we should have more to show for our efforts.

For now I thought our Australian readers might be interested to know what it’s like in USA at the moment. I can’t say much about the rest of the country but Missoula appears to be booming!

Cost of Living

When I returned to Australia five years ago after living here for twenty I was astounded by how expensive Australia had become. The situation hasn’t changed much in the interim. Some things like food, electronics and plastic crap from China are about the same cost here as at home. But other things like energy, clothing and beer are much cheaper.

Petrol here is about US$2.40/gallon which translates to about AU$0.76/Litre… about half what we pay.

You can buy a good quality pair of jeans here for about US$20 compared to about AU$75 at home…also about half.

And you can buy a case of beer for about US$15 compared to about AU$40 at home… about half once again.

The one thing that seems to have changed a lot since I left here is the cost of renting a house. You can still buy a house here for about half the cost of one in the Southern Highlands of NSW (where the Greeny Flat is located) but rents, which used to be much cheaper, have gone up dramatically.

The last house I lived in before I left Missoula had four bedrooms, was in a great location and we paid US$900/month (rents in the States are almost always calculated by the month rather than by the week as in Australia). That house would have probably cost about US$300,000 to buy at the time. Now you could probably still buy it for about US$400,000 but to rent it would be more like US$1400/month. As an investment that would give a gross return of about 4.2%. So, while house prices have gone up about 33%, rents have gone up 66% to the point where you’d be mad not to buy a house if you could afford the deposit.

The same house in Mittagong would cost about AU$700,000 and rent for about AU$550/week or AU$2200/month (US$1740). That would give a gross return of about 3.8%. So the return on investment is about the same but the price of houses anywhere near Sydney is so high that many people, including Cintia and I, simply can’t afford to get into the market.

The other huge difference between buying a house here and buying one in Australia is that here, you can lock in a mortgage rate of around 3.5% for thirty years, which is another reason why you’d be mad not to buy a house here if you could. As our Aussie readers will know, you might get a 3.5% interest rate in Australia but it won’t be locked in, it will be variable and at the whim of the banks and the economy. With Australia’s citizens reportedly being the most indebted in the world and most of those loans being subject to variable interest rates, it seems that our economy is highly vulnerable to any significant rise in interest rates.

State of Sustainability

When I first left Australia to live here in the states (about twenty five years ago) I felt like we were a long way ahead of America in our efforts to create more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of living. When I left Montana to return to Oz about five years ago I thought that Australia had gone backwards while America had advanced to the point where it was well ahead of us in those efforts. Coming back here now I have to say that I think Australia has gone even further backwards and America has gone even further ahead.

Admittedly Missoula is a very progressive town with a lot of left-leaning, environmentally and socially aware people. I’m sure things are vastly different in other parts of this country. But here, at least, it seems like every other car is a Prius, every neighbourhood has a community garden, biking and walking are encouraged (to the point where every car driver will stop to allow pedestrians and bicycles to cross the road) and everywhere you look there is another cool thing like Home Resource (the building materials recycling centre where Sam and I are getting lots of goodies for his house renovations), MUD (the Missoula Urban Demonstration project which houses an extensive tool library that will be very handy over the next couple of months of home renovations) or (Free Cycles¬†which collects old bike parts, combines them into workable machines and where Cintia and I were able to borrow a couple of two-wheelers to use while we’re here in town).

This town seems to be full of people doing interesting things that help to build community, reduce environmental burdens and save people money. And it’s not just a few dedicated people on the fringes, the State of Montana has also passed very stringent energy efficiency requirements for new buildings, something that Australia (and NSW in particular) has most certainly NOT done.

Perhaps the only sustainability area in which Australia is still leading the world is in the installation of rooftop solar where I believe we have the highest number of panels per person. This is probably due to three things; high government subsidies; high electricity costs; and lots of sunshine. Montana doesn’t get anywhere near as much sun as we do in Australia. Electricity costs here are much lower at around US$0.12/kWh compared to AU$0.25/kWh (NSW price equivalent to about US$0.20/kWh). And the cost of installing solar here is much higher. A 2.5kW system here costs about US$5000 after rebates compared to about AU$3000 (about US$2400) at home. The big difference here in Montana is that the homeowner gets the same price for the excess solar they put into the grid as they pay for the electricity they take out of the grid. This means that their Feed In Tarriff is much higher than ours so, over time, their solar systems will pay for themselves in about the same time period (i.e. about 6-7 years for homes).


So there you have it, some things are better here and some are worse. Most of the people I know seem to be ignoring the fact that there’s a petulant narcissist running the country and getting on with community life in this wonderful town. Missoula really is a great place to live or to visit and I think we, in Australia, have a lot to learn from their efforts to create a vibrant, sustainable and equitable society. It has a great deal to recommend it…

but it’s a LONG way from a beach.

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