Amid all the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19 over the past six months, one thing is assured: the pandemic has re-ordered real estate markets across the board on an unprecedented scale.
Some of this may be irreversible. Real estate’s re-sorting this time isn’t just based on markets crashing (the Great Recession), political turmoil (the 1979 oil embargo), or financial speculation (the first and second dot.com busts)—after which there’s generally confidence that overall consumer demand and buyer preferences will sooner or later snap back to normal.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, more deep-seeded, tectonic-sized questions beyond markets and interest rates are being asked this time around that no one really has the answers to yet—like will people feel safer living in the south and southwest where they can spend all year social distancing outside? What if companies let workers work remotely for the rest of their lives? Why go back to retail shopping when I’m already ordering everything online? What’s the point of living “downtown” if half of the restaurants, bars, and museums never open back up?
How these questions get answered will fundamentally re-order how Americans live in the “new” pandemic normal, and as a result will play a huge X-factor in which cities and states will experience growth, demand, and price appreciation over the next 3-5 years, and which ones will stagnate and lose. More broadly for large metropolises like Washington, D.C., New York City, Portland, and Philadelphia, the answers risk slowing or even reversing a wave of gentrification and wildly profitable downtown revitalization that’s been accelerating since before the Great Recession.
Against this backdrop, real estate’s new normal is also creating huge swathes of opportunity. Dozens of cities and counties that were once considered too small, too southern, too hot, too flat, or lacking in amenities, culture, or sophistication are now finding themselves swooned to the top of the real estate desirability lists as people seek warmer, healthier, less dense, better educated, and more mobile places to live that offer closer access to the outdoors, better hospitals, and more open space with no clear end to the pandemic in sight.
To get a better view on what’s really happening to real estate in America right now I decided that it was time to do a deep dive into the actual data from the experts—including CoStar, Zillow, and Realtor—on how COVID-19’s great migration is actually shaking out and where the money and bodies are moving.
Here’s what I found out.
No matter who I spoke with, a few words kept resurfacing as we lurch into the post-pandemic future: warmer, safer, smaller, stabler, lower taxes, and less regulation.
Regardless of where people come from or where they’re going, these things aren’t new on the list of what most Americans generally expect from the places they live, especially as they get older. (Northeasterners have been moving south and west for generations). The more interesting pandemic sub-text here is the acceleration factor—and how the places where Americans are moving right now in the midst of COVID-19 may finally be expressing a more fundamental preference for how they really want to live instead of where they have to stay because of their job location or where their kids go to school. This also says a lot more about where many American’s heads are right now, and more importantly, the specific criteria with which they’re considering making one of the most important next decisions of their lives in an era of unprecedented uncertainty.
The repercussions of this new COVID migration has the potential to re-shuffle the essential demographic and economic balance of America for the next generation.
By every metric, Americans are moving faster now than they were before the pandemic.
Page-per-property views on real estate platforms like Realtor and Zillow are up over 50% year-over-year almost everywhere, inventory in America’s 100 top metro markets has been shrinking since March, along with days on market and the gap between list-to-sale price. A lot of real estate experts prefer the word “despite” when it comes to accounting for this phenomenon while the pandemic’s still raging, when it’s probably more accurately “because of”.
“Real estate markets have undergone noticeable shifts since the start of the coronavirus pandemic,” George Ratiu, Senior Economist at realtor.com tells me. “In the wake of the lockdowns in March, Americans discovered that existing homes were not adequate for the new work, teach, exercise, cook and live at home reality. Based on realtor.com surveys of consumers, we learned that home shoppers are looking for more space, quieter neighborhoods, home offices, newer kitchens and access to the outdoors, traits which have revived a strong interest in the suburbs and smaller metro areas.”
The other clear trend since the COVID-19 pandemic began is that residential real estate is on a tear virtually everywhere.
Previous recessions and economic shocks tended to pull some regions down while sparing or barnstorming others. This time, so far, every region’s a winner—as Americans put more stock in their quality of life, work, walkability, and community when it comes to where they root themselves next other than just the cables that previously tied them to their workplaces.
The Northeast real estate market remains strong, despite all omens otherwise since New York City was the original epicenter of COVID-19 flight back in March, and the overall low-tax, lower regulation trends across the country that aren’t in the region’s favor. According to realtor.com’s most recent data, five of America’s hottest real estate markets are in New England—Rochester, NY, Melrose, MA, Portland, ME, Hudson, NH, and Worcester, MA—each of which ranked in the top ten across more than three categories including lowest days on market, list-to-sale ratio, or page views per-property.
Data crunched by real estate platform Zillow’s research group paints a similar picture of strong regional growth across small cities as well suburbs within an hour of established major metro areas. I had Zillow look at the 100 largest metro areas based on five metrics—median sale price, median list price, days to pending, share of listings with a price cut, and page views—and grabbed the top and bottom seven in each one.
At the top of Zillow’s list as of October 2020, three of America’s hottest real estate markets are in Ohio: Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton. Boise and Salt Lake City also made the list, along with Stamford, CT outside of New York City. Austin came in number one. Louisville, KY, Memphis, TN, Honolulu, and Des Moines, IA were at the bottom on Zillow’s aggregate list, though Zillow’s economists were quick to point out that in today’s market that means “less good”.
“Even the coolest markets in America right now are generally performing well and tilted in favor of sellers,” says Cheryl Young, senior economist at Zillow. “There’s a lot of demand for housing right now and homes are typically selling quickly for prices above what we were seeing last year. It’s also worth noting that the bottom performers for the most part aren’t decreasing. They’re just increasing at a lower-than-average rate. The residential market is on fire right now in most of the country, so these ‘coolest’ markets aren’t necessarily doing all that poorly.”
Trends show Americans are also still moving where businesses move, despite the work-from-home trend accelerated by COVID-19. Even if Americans don’t have to show up to the same office every day, the tax base, culture, hospitality, vibrancy, and infrastructure (think school districts) that a thriving business and entrepreneurial community supports long-term is one of the essential underpinnings of a successful residential real estate market.
From this perspective, COVID is accelerating demographic trends that were already in place before the pandemic, especially when it comes to businesses seeking places to expand long-term that are pro-growth, low-tax, more stable politically, and skewed towards an educated work force with advanced degrees in fields like engineering, math, technology, business, and law. Austin, Salt Lake City, Raleigh, Charlotte, Nashville, and San Jose all top the list in 2020 in this respect according to CoStar, with occupied office growth expected to exceed 10% over the next five years. Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, Atlanta, San Antonio, and Boston aren’t far behind—all expected to grow by 8%+ as of Q3 2020 according to CoStar.
“Businesses will continue seeking low-cost alternatives to more expensive coastal markets COVID-19 or not, which has fueled growth in markets like Atlanta, Phoenix, or Dallas, though workers that might have once opted for downtown living have shown a preference for suburban locales in recent months,” says Andrew Rybczynski, Managing Consultant at CoStar. “Smaller, well-educated markets with similar structural advantages, like Raleigh, Charlotte, or Austin also qualify, especially because of their attractive workforces. While COVID and the recession it caused will hurt business growth and office absorption, we expect the structural advantages of many southern and southwestern markets to continue through foreseeable future.”
When Rybczynski refers to “structural advantages”, what he means is governance. Using a simple measure of tax burden, CoStar correlates a rough relationship between lower taxes, pro-business governance, faster growth, and increased in-migration—all of which are currently skewing towards American metro areas with local and state governments that are willing to keep regulations and business costs low in exchange for job growth and economic opportunity.
For what it’s worth, these “structural advantages” also skew politically. 10 of 12 of America’s cities forecasted to experience the fastest growth in occupied office space according to CoStar over the next five years have Republican Governors, Legislatures, and Mayors. Nine of the top 15 cities where businesses are relocating and mopping up office space are in three states that predominantly lean Republican—Texas (4), Florida (3), and North Carolina (2)—including Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Raleigh, and Charlotte respectively. All of these cities have Republican Mayors.
At the same time, however, Americans and its companies are not always moving in the same direction, suggesting a de-coupling of one of the most fundamental drivers of American migration for generations—namely people living near where they work. In some instances there’s overlap, like Austin, Raleigh, Columbus, Salt Lake City. But overall Americans appear to be moving during the pandemic more for personal reasons than being simply motivated by employment or corporate relocation.
“The hottest housing markets in the new landscape are cities which offer desirable amenities—larger homes, leafy neighborhoods, access to the outdoors, walkability and proximity to grocery stores—in a more affordable package,” says realtor.com’s Ratiu. “Home buyers still want to be within commuting distance of large employment centers, but with the prevalence of remote work, they are willing to extend the distance from urban downtowns.”
In addition to the five Northeastern areas on the top of realtor.com’s hottest real estate markets to watch list right now, Colorado Springs, CO, Columbus, OH, Topeka, KS, Springfield, VA, and Raleigh, NC also ranked in the platform’s top ten list in at least three criteria for precisely these more emotional reasons, say Ratiu.
“The current housing market is driven by several noteworthy factors. First, America’s demographics are skewing younger as the Millennial generation—the largest in the U.S. history—is embracing home ownership. Second, the technological promise of the mid-1990s of freeing workers from their desks has come of age in 2020, as the coronavirus-induced quarantine forced employers to rely on work-from-home. Americans have been resoundingly successful at navigating this transition, and in the process, discovered the benefits of shorter commutes and the flexibility of being able to work from anywhere. In turn, this has shifted consumer preferences for housing, driving the transition into suburbs, vacation and second-home destinations and even rural areas. Third, riding in the wake of a decade’s worth of home price appreciation which has outpaced income growth, many Americans are seeking affordability again, leading many buyers into suburban neighborhoods and away from high-cost, high-density urban downtowns.”
Who’s notably absent from all the data?
Not a single city in California or the Pacific Northwest ranked anywhere near the top of anyone’s “Best Of” lists in terms of where Americans are moving, which suggests that the effects of COVID’s first flight last March may be fossilizing permanently. New York City, Long Island, northern New Jersey, Honolulu, and Philadelphia were also conspicuously absent, reinforcing America’s net emotional migration away from high-priced real estate markets as well as high-density, high lockdown urban locations.