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SEATTLE — Where people choose to live has traditionally been tied to where they work. A dynamic that through the past decade spurred extreme home value growth and an affordability crisis in coastal job centers. But the post-pandemic recovery could mitigate or even produce the opposite effect. It could drive a boom in secondary cities and exurbs, prompted not by a fear of density but by a seismic shift towards remote work.

Now that more than half of employed Americans (56%) have had the opportunity to do remote work, a vast majority wants to continue, at least occasionally. A new survey from Zillow, conducted last week by The Harris Poll, finds 75% of Americans working from home due to COVID-19 say they would prefer to continue that at least half the time, if given the option after the pandemic subsides.

Two-third of employees doing remote work due to COVID-19 (66%) would be at least somewhat likely to consider moving if they had the flexibility to work from home as often as they want. Only 24% of Americans overall say they thought about moving as a result of spending more time at home due to social distancing recommendations.

The Pew Research Center found prior to COVID-19, only 7% of civilian workers in the United States had the option to do remote work as a workplace benefit, though 40% worked in jobs that could potentially be performed remotely.

Suburban boom space seekers

Many employed Americans are trying to square the desire to work remotely with the functionality and size of their existing homes.  Among employees who would be likely to consider moving, if given the flexibility to work from home when they want, nearly one-third say they would consider moving in order to live in a home with a dedicated office space (31%), to live in a larger home (30%), and to live in a home with more rooms (29%).

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A Zillow analysis finds 46% of current households have a spare bedroom that they can use as an office. But that percentage drops off by more than 10 points in dense, expensive metros such as Los Angeles, New York, San Jose, San Francisco, and San Diego, where far fewer homes have spare rooms.

When it comes time to move, home shoppers who can work remotely may seek out more space—both indoor and outdoor—farther outside city limits, where they can find larger homes within their budget.

“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,” said Zillow senior principal economist, Skylar Olsen. “However, that means they’d also be moving farther from a wider variety of restaurants, shops, yoga studios, and art galleries. Given the value many place on access to such amenities, we’re not talking about the rise of the rural homesteader on a large scale. Future growth under broader remote work would still favor suburban communities or secondary cities that offer those amenities along with more spacious homes and larger lots.”

Shift in demand

Zillow Premier Agents from Silicon Valley to Manhattan say anecdotally, they’re seeing the early beginnings of a shift.

“We are seeing more buyers looking to leave the city,” said Bic DeCaro, a member of Zillow’s Agent Advisory Board. “Buyers, who just a few months ago were looking for walkability, are now looking for extra land to go along with more square footage.”

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Keith Taylor Andrews, a small business owner in Denver, started home shopping on Zillow the week Colorado issued a stay-home order. The first-time homebuyer is now under contract on a house in Fayetteville, Arkansas that he plans to use as his home office.

“We learned from COVID-19 that we could operate our business remotely,” said Andrews. He now has 40 employees working from home. “Arkansas is a good place to move, it’s economical and there are far fewer people. It feels like a breath of fresh air to get out of the city.”

Computing the commute

The research finds renters, buyers, and sellers overwhelmingly agreeing that the longest one-way commute they’d be willing to accept when considering a new home or job was 30 minutes.

This new survey from Zillow and The Harris Poll finds those priorities appear to change if people have the flexibility to work from home regularly. When given that option, half of those who are able to do their job from home (50%) say they would be open to a commute that was up to 45 minutes or longer.

In most major cities, living close to downtown comes at a price. In 29 of the nation’s 33 largest metro markets, buyers can expect to pay more per square foot for a home within a 15-minute, rush-hour drive to the downtown core.  If buyers and renters are not burdened by a five-day-a-week commute, housing in the exurbs, secondary cities, and remote bedroom communities may become viable and affordable options.

Even with remote work as an option, only 10% of those able to do their job from home would consider a commute longer than an hour. It debunks the theory that urbanites are now seeking out a rural living as a result of the coronavirus.

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