Zillow survey forecasts suburban boom as remote workers flee pricey cities in search of bigger homes

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Seattle’s years-long rush to build new apartment buildings was aimed at accommodating a growing tech workforce that wanted to live close to offices in the city. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The Seattle real estate tech companies that have spent the past several years reporting on how attractive and hot tech hubs like Seattle, Silicon Valley and elsewhere are have shifted gears during the COVID-19 pandemic. The darlings of the latest real estate projections are secondary cities, the exurbs, bigger homes and more space.

Zillow weighed in this week with the results of a survey tied to remote work and how it could affect where Americans want to live, with 75 percent of those working from home saying they would like to continue to do that at least half the time after the health crisis subsides.

That work-from-home desire also leads two-thirds of employees (66 percent) who have that option to say that they are at least somewhat likely to consider moving as a result. It’s a shift from the past decade that has drawn more people closer to urban cores and tech jobs — and spurred an explosion in home value growth and an affordability crisis in places like Seattle.

Zillow’s take is in line with comments made recently by Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, who predicted on an earnings call that remote work could lead more people to leave cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle in search of cheaper real estate and more space. He called out smaller cities such as Boise, Idaho, Bozeman, Mont., and Tacoma, Wash., which could see an influx of home buyers.

Redfin further reported on this trend on Thursday with data showing that page views for houses in small towns (populations less than 50,000) were up 105 percent year over year during the seven-day period ending May 1. The views climbed 76 percent for rural counties with fewer than 10,000 people — down from a peak of 170 percent a month earlier.

Redfin also said the draw to small towns extends beyond browsing to actual sales. While pending home sales are down across the board, less-populous areas aren’t being hit quite as hard as large cities.

On the heels of Twitter announcing that some employees will be allowed to work from home forever, Bloomberg also reported Thursday on how Silicon Valley tech workers are looking to escape sky-high rents for more affordable options away from San Francisco.

Zillow found that people aren’t just looking to take advantage of the ability to do their job from anywhere, they want to be more comfortable while doing it. Of those surveyed with WFH as an option, 31 percent would consider moving in order to live in a home with a dedicated office space, to live in a larger home (30 percent), and to live in a home with more rooms (29 percent).

“Moving away from the central core has traditionally offered affordability at the cost of your time and gas money. Relaxing those costs by working remotely could mean more households choose those larger homes farther out, easing price pressure on urban and inner suburban areas,” Zillow senior principal economist Skylar Olsen said.

The trade-off is moving away from a wider variety of restaurants, shops, and urban amenities. Olsen said “we’re not talking about the rise of the rural homesteader on a large scale,” but rather a remote workforce that still favors suburban communities or secondary cities that have many of the amenities plus the bigger homes.

For those who work from home some of the time and still make a trip into the office, breaking up the routine can change what they’re willing to put up with when it comes to a commute.

Previous Zillow research found renters, buyers and sellers overwhelmingly agreed that the longest one-way commute they’d be willing to accept when considering a new home or job was 30 minutes. The new survey  showed 50 percent who would be open to a commute that was up to 45 minutes or longer.

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