Appearing in: MarketWatch
By: Jessica Wakeman
Answering the question “Where do you want to live?” has always been a complicated calculation, taking into account everything from job opportunities to cost of living to climate to proximity to family and friends. Nowadays there’s something new to factor in: how COVID-19 may change how — and where — we want to live.
COVID-19 has touched every state in the nation. But the virus hit America’s largest cities harder than less densely populated areas.
According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the counties with the highest number of confirmed cases encompass Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia and Miami. (The suburbs of New York City, where many commuters live, have also been hard hit.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, “this idea has sparked in [a buyer’s] mind: Do we want to live in the city anymore?” says Mike Simoneau Jr., a Realtor for Geri Reilly Real Estate in Burlington, Vermont. He said his agency has “gotten a lot of inquiries from people” since COVID-19 began.
Ditto for Pierrette Rouleau, owner of Rouleau Real Estate Group, a boutique real estate agency in Western North Carolina. She says she often gets inquiries about moves to the area planned for two or three years out. Now she wonders if some potential buyers might fast-track a move due to COVID-19 “because they realize that their space is so limited and they need more.”
However, not all Realtors are fielding COVID-19-related inquiries. Deb Parker of Parker & Co. Real Estate in Billings, Montana, and president of the Billings Association of Realtors, says she hasn’t seen an influx of people inquiring from out-of-state about relocating to Big Sky Country. Instead, most of her inquiries have been regarding job transfers. Ultimately, Rouleau was reluctant to draw any conclusions about how COVID-19 may impact relocation choices, or the real-estate industry in general. “What the next six to eight or 12 months looks like in terms of real estate is anybody’s bet,” she says.
What matters to movers?
Urban experts agree that it’s too early to tell whether more people will leave larger cities due to COVID-19. Those trends become more visible after a couple of years, but even then, looking at trends over decades can reveal something entirely different.
Aaron Renn, writer and researcher on cities, pointed out that many people predicted New York City residents would flee after 9/11. At the time, it was assumed that Americans wouldn’t want to live in a confirmed terrorist target. And yet the population of New York City continued to increase by almost 225,000 people in 2010 and an estimated 300,000 more by 2020.
So, regarding COVID-19, “it’s really hard to predict what the consequences of these sorts of events are going to [have],” Renn says
Experts also note that it’ll be difficult to ascertain whether people who relocate to smaller cities and suburbs are motivated exclusively by the virus. That’s because even before the total upheaval caused by the pandemic, there was already a trend of people moving out of larger cities to smaller cities or to suburbs.
“The bloom was already a little bit off the rose on these big coastal cities like New York — the biggest cities,” says Renn. He noted that tens of thousands of people left Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City the past several years. This occurred as the population of smaller cities like Phoenix, Orlando and Denver increased between July 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018, according to a Bloomberg analysis of U.S. Census data.
Joel Kotkin, author and fellow of urban studies at Chapman University in Orange, California, acknowledges that no one knows what the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be. But he theorizes that the big city-exodus trend will continue “unless cities decide they’re going to operate in a different way.”
For example, public transportation has long been one of the benefits of living in a city. But new priorities — ensuring less crowding during peak hours and maintaining cleaning regimens without impacting ridership — may prove difficult. If people forgo public transportation for cars, there will need to be more places to park all those vehicles. Streets may need to close to encourage more social distancing or to encourage restaurants, bars and music venues to transition to open-air.
These adjustments may be easier to enact in smaller cities, where an affordable cost of living is already appealing (in addition to other assets). Renn suggests that there are some cities, like Columbus, Kansas City and Indianapolis “have a lot of opportunity” right now.
“You’re going to see people say, ‘What matters?’” says Kotkin. “Let’s just say that these pandemics occur on a fairly regular basis, every five years, every 10 years. Then you start thinking about, ‘If I’m going to be locked down for a month or two months or three months, I’d much rather have a house with a yard and some space.’”
Storage space may also be a premium. “I think a lot of people are probably going to start carrying an emergency toilet paper reserve,” says Renn. “Where are you going to store the 30-roll Charmin pack?”
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