BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

How does Australia measure up against the UK?

Australia is a destination of choice for built environment professionals wanting to relocate for work – but those making the move should understand there's more to it than surveying in the sun

Author:

  • Carlene Cayless-Hill MRICS

19 January 2023

Sydney skyline

Sydney, Australia. In Australia, the market for building surveying professionals is constantly growing

As I rode the lift to the 22nd floor and stepped through the sliding glass doors into the refurbished Sydney office of my new employer six years ago, I wondered: how different can it be to work as a chartered building surveyor in Australia rather than the UK?

No language barriers to contend with; a tight-knit building consultancy team of British expats; and, as I'd noted on my journey into the office, a plethora of commercial buildings that did not look too dissimilar to those I was used to surveying in London.

No sooner had I greeted my new team, collected my work laptop and sorted the access code for my locker, I was summoned by my new manager. Following the typical first-day niceties, he looked me squarely in the eye as if my thoughts were audible and professed solemnly: 'It's not like surveying in the UK.'

At this point he proceeded to present a very visual display of Australia's deadliest creatures as part of an ad-hoc health and safety briefing. While I listened intently to the venomous characteristics of the infamous redback spider, I had to concede that surveying in Australia would be quite different indeed.

Having now spent as much of my 11-year career here as in the UK, I'm in a position to offer some insights on the practicalities of working as a building surveyor in Australia.

Defining the differences

As a Commonwealth nation with shared heritage, shared language and institutional connections, Australia offers a sensible option for surveyors seeking to live and work abroad without too much culture shock.

Whether you are contemplating a temporary placement, a working year abroad or something more long term, understanding some of the subtle differences as well as the notable ones can inform your decision, or help you settle if you have recently moved to the Antipodes.

To start with semantics, the term building surveyor is not transferrable from the UK to Australia. From an Australian perspective, someone who is described as a building surveyor is primarily concerned about compliance with the National Construction Code, in much the same way as building control surveyors in the UK advise on Building Regulations.

In the UK, the role of a typical building surveyor has a number of specific duties unrelated to building certification. The term building consultant is more common in Australia when it comes to such tasks other than compliance, so bear this in mind when liaising with counterparts in Australian property and construction. Building surveying in the British sense is a lesser-known profession than other sector pathways such as project management or quantity surveying.

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Growing service line offers opportunities

While building surveying in Australia is a niche market, this should not dissuade professionals in the UK from considering a move. In fact, given the increasing number of clients asking for RICS-qualified teams during my tenure in Australia, the building surveying service line has gained traction here in recent years. This is alongside the wider recognition of chartered building surveyors as gold-standard advisers – particularly from the perspective of global commercial clients.

There are thus myriad potential opportunities for savvy building surveying professionals to scale the career ladder faster than they would in the UK, due to high demand for qualified professionals and the distinct lack of local chartered candidates.

In fact, most property consultancies in Australia that recruit for building surveyor positions include RICS-qualified UK expats, whether they are practising building surveyors or have transitioned into project management. Thus when searching for a suitable surveying role in Australia you are highly likely to encounter one or two fellow Brits.

'While building surveying in Australia is a niche market, this should not dissuade professionals in the UK from considering a move'

Accessing Australia and understanding the sector

Most settled expat surveyors who live and work in Australia for the long term either have familial ties to the country or have gained permanent residency through employer or state sponsorship. There is also the option of applying for a skilled work visa independently through the Australian government's invitation scheme, which is the route I chose myself.

Securing a visa to work long term in Australia can be an arduous process, but is not impossible for those willing to persevere. Seek advice from a reputable immigration agent, preferably before you relocate, and be aware of whether your prospective employer can provide additional support.

But when you have found a job, accepted the change in title and crafted your elevator pitch about what a building consultant does, what will life as a building surveyor in Australia look like?

There is little difference between the types of task building surveyors conduct in the UK and those they perform in Australia, from preparing schedules of condition to technical due diligence reports. However, the property and construction industry can seem less process-driven for UK-trained surveyors, with less structure around contentious stages of the property cycle.

For example, there is no specific equivalent of the Dilapidations Protocol in Australia. Even though it forms part of the RICS guidance for the jurisdiction, few people are aware of it because they have not employed a chartered building surveyor. Without this awareness of a formal incentive, dilapidations – or 'make good' as it is called – can descend into litigation, often bypassing the dispute resolution clauses included in most leases.

The client base across commercial instructions meanwhile tends to be similar to the UK's. There is a range of international and national clients, with a large volume hailing from the surrounding Asia–Pacific region or North America.

This global clientele means that the concept of caveat emptor – 'let the buyer beware' – is gaining ground at a local and national level, taken more seriously by potential purchasers and vendors alike over the past decade or so and thus increasing the number of due diligence instructions. Nonetheless, we still come across the odd purchaser who has spent millions of dollars on a large-scale commercial asset without conducting any due technical due diligence – which would be unheard of in the UK.

In the comparatively small field of building surveying in Australia, though, it is uncommon for surveyors to specialise in a particular asset class. Instead, they are typically expected to cover the full spectrum of commercial property, from office buildings and hotels to industrial units and shopping centres.

Challenges and the chance to travel

British building surveyors may not be aware that Australia is itself a commonwealth of eight different states and territories across three separate time zones. While the National Construction Code – the Australian equivalent of the UK Building Regulations – applies at national level, each state or territory regulates the implementation of building and construction activities in its own jurisdiction.

This means that the reports required from building surveyors can differ, particularly when undertaking interstate technical due diligence engagements. For example, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in London in June 2017, each Australian state or territory enacted or amended legislation on combustible cladding to varying degrees. New South Wales banned the use of combustible cladding products in December that year, yet the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory went to no such lengths in their respective responses.

Geography not only has an impact on what surveyors do, though, but how they do it. Covering an area around 32 times that of the UK, the sheer size of Australia cannot be truly fathomed until you are navigating the country for work. Company car benefits are uncommon for property professionals so surveyors are expected to use their own personal vehicles, claiming a mileage allowance as a work expense, or use a car-hire service.

Outside state capitals public transport is limited and impractical, with cars or planes being the most efficient way of getting around to complete surveys. Flying the 900km from Sydney to Brisbane for a morning survey certainly contrasts with a rush-hour trip on the London Underground. While this would only happen once or twice a month for a given team and is not a typical journey, it's certainly not uncommon either.

As they work in a smaller market, however, building surveyors' services are increasingly in demand. It is unusual to find chartered professionals based outside Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, so surveyors can expect to travel far and wide across the country, and possibly even to New Zealand, to meet client business needs. With a large volume of property assets located outside the state capitals, the potential for interstate travel on the company purse is plentiful.

Nonetheless, Australia's natural environment means specific additional precautions must be taken when conducting inspections. Possible risks include extreme weather events – high temperatures, flooding and bushfires – as well as dangerous wildlife and isolated regional areas.

Appealing to the Australian market

While building surveyors in Australia typically take on a similar range of work as those in the UK, instructions are heavily weighted towards make good and technical due diligence, with the latter sometimes involving a large number of assets in a single portfolio.

Small- to medium-scale project management is also feasible, but may prove challenging to manage in conjunction with a high turnover of core building surveying work. If you are a building surveyor with an interest in project management, there is certainly scope to transition into such a team if you join a multidisciplinary firm.

In a similar vein, there is an increased chance of securing employment in Australia if you have become chartered on the building surveying pathway with experience in commercial property. But the training and support infrastructure necessary to obtain RICS membership in Australian property consultancies is in its infancy compared to the UK. The vast majority of surveying expats only relocate to Australia after becoming chartered in the UK.

Building surveyors with commercial surveying experience are generally preferred to small-scale residential surveyors because these roles tend to be filled by licensed tradespeople, architects or building certifiers. Indeed, in some states or territories such as Queensland a licence is required by law to complete a domestic building inspection report.

'While building surveyors in Australia typically take on a similar range of work as those in the UK, instructions are heavily weighted towards make good and technical due diligence'

Work culture supports quality of life

The notion of surveying in the sun certainly has its appeal, and many UK building surveyors working in Australia often cite their much-improved quality of life as the main reason for staying in the country.

Australian work culture tends to favour starting and finishing relatively early, but hours are not vastly different from those in the UK. Surveyors can expect to work additional hours over busy spells, but typically there is opportunity for downtime during quieter periods.

The annual leave allowance in Australia is less generous than the UK's, with 20 days being standard; however, Australians do enjoy slightly more public holidays throughout the year, including the UK monarch's birthday. Notably, the number of public holidays varies depending on which state you work in.

Team bonding is also highly encouraged, with Friday drinks a long-standing tradition across most job sectors. The end of the financial year – 30 June – is also an important date in the work calendar, with most firms hosting celebrations akin to the Christmas party season, given that the date is also the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere.

Building surveyors relocating to Australia can also expect a higher salary than in most of the UK, while the cost of living is typically about the same or slightly higher depending on the state in which you live and work. However, compared to London – where salaries tend to be higher than the rest of the UK – those in Australia tend to track at a similar rate. As the most expensive city, Sydney is certainly on a par with London in respect of rent, house prices and the costs of groceries and dining out.

Notwithstanding the elevated wages, fringe benefits such as company cars, health insurance and well-being schemes are less forthcoming at property consultancies, although this depends on their size. Core employee benefits such as workplace pension schemes – referred to as superannuation – and bonus pools are commonplace, however. There is also an opportunity for surveyors in Australia to recoup funds through their annual tax returns. Unlike the UK, though, you must complete a tax return in Australia regardless of whether you are employed or self-employed, even if you are taxed on a pay-as-you-earn basis.

Bondi beach, Sydney, Australia

Bondi Beach, Sydney

Is relocating worth it?

Although Australia often gives an impression of familiarity and easy integration for UK professionals, surveyors considering relocation – temporarily or permanently – must be cognisant of the differences between the two countries.

The market for building surveying professionals in Australia may be niche but it is constantly growing, and its benefits as a specialised service offering are gaining recognition across the property and construction industry.

There is still work to be done in terms of educating clients and local property professionals as to the benefits of our core skills, though, and any building surveyors who opt to work in Australia could help champion the same cause.

In my experience, working as a building surveyor in Australia has allowed me to grow, from both a professional and personal perspective. Improvements in quality of life and a better work–life balance make Australia an excellent choice for surveyors looking to relocate and obtain international experience. This sentiment is echoed by other British expat surveyors in my professional circle, many of whom have settled here for the foreseeable future.

Relocating may not be for everyone, though, and will depend on personal circumstances and which stage you are at in your career. I would encourage anyone thinking about taking the plunge to do their own research with their specific intentions in mind, to speak to specialists as required – including immigration experts – and, most importantly, ask questions of the building surveyors who have already taken a similar path.

'Although Australia often gives an impression of familiarity and easy integration for UK professionals, surveyors considering relocation must be cognisant of the differences between the two countries'

 

Carlene Cayless-Hill MRICS is a building surveyor currently on sabbatical from Knight Frank Australia
Contact Carlene: Email

Related competencies include: Ethics, Rules of Conduct and professionalism

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