Lisa Lundberg received her first out-of-state call about the local real-estate market on March 20. Within days, that one call became hundreds as agents in her Berkshire-Hathaway office on State Street fielded queries from around the country. “From New Jersey to Kansas, to Connecticut, to D.C. and Georgia, people living in cities wanted out and were looking for wide open spaces,” she said. “I work with a group of agents who have been in the business 20 years. They’ve never seen a market like this.”
The calls haven’t stopped. Homes in Bristol are selling as fast as they are listed—sometimes within hours of appearing online—usually with multiple offers and typically well over the asking price. Pressed against Tennessee’s northern border with Virginia, Bristol calls itself “the birthplace of country music.” It’s known for Nascar races at the Bristol Motor Speedway, its beautiful lakes, and the nearby Cherokee National Forest.
“We’ve never really been known as a place to relocate from a big city. We are not a big metropolis, but here we are,” Ms. Lundberg said, shrugging at the unexpected popularity.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, urbanites—especially those with means—have been fleeing their big-city homes in search of temporary shelter in suburbs, small towns and rural areas. They may have started out thinking they’d take a long vacation and get back to the city once the pandemic passed, but now they are seriously considering sticking around. The coronavirus hasn’t gone away. Add to it the disruptions caused by the constant protests, rising crime and decreased police presence. For many, life in the city has lost its charm, while remote work has proved its viability.
It isn’t only the wealthy who are getting out of Dodge. Young people who moved to the big city with dreams of the high life find themselves enjoying something more peaceful and bucolic. We may be seeing the end of the long trend, driven by now-aging millennials, toward “sustainable urban density”—rooftop gardens, bike lanes, Instagram brunches and the like.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo bluntly addressed the issue in August when he begged those who had fled the city to come back. His appeal was aimed at the rich, who pay the most taxes. “They’re not coming back right now,” Mr. Cuomo lamented. “And you know what else they’re thinking? ‘If I stay here, I pay a lower income tax,’ because they don’t pay the New York City surcharge. That would be a bad place if we had to go there.”
For more than 15 years, Brendon DeSimone was a top producer for real-estate agencies in Manhattan and San Francisco. He thought perhaps home sales in tony Bedford, N.Y., an hour north of Times Square, might move at a slower pace. He thought wrong.
“We’ve had an influx of folks coming up to Northern Westchester from the city first looking for rentals, short and long term. And then also looking to buy,” he explained. When Gov. Cuomo lifted a brief state ban on in-person showings in April, the stampede started. “Bedford went from a place where you had a second home to a place that you call home year round.” A “broker in town told me he now has his children up here and his grandchildren. It was a whole different sense [of place] for him and he admitted he couldn’t now imagine himself back in Brooklyn.”
Scott and Linda Strasburg have been in the Doylestown, Pa., real-estate business since 1981. The seat of Bucks County, Doylestown has that essential something that real estate professionals say trumps all other considerations: location. It’s 25 miles from Philadelphia and 65 miles from New York City. The Strasburgs say they are benefiting from the exodus from both cities.
“Some of the buyers were young people who couldn’t wait to move to the city, and now they are coming home,” said Mr. Strasburg. The market is so competitive, Ms. Strasburg adds, that many houses sell the morning they’re listed. “They get multiple offers, and they also do a thing called an escalation clause now. So people will pay, let’s say, $5,000 over asking price, but if somebody else comes in higher, they put a clause in their offer that says if another offer goes over $5,000, I’ll put an additional $7,500 in to win the deal.”
Maybe the flight to safety from America’s big cities will reverse itself when the pandemic ends. The Manhattan apartment-vacancy rate topped 5% for the first time ever in August, but who knows? Maybe everyone will move back next year. One thing’s for sure: Big-city people who took delight in looking down at suburban and rural America are finding out firsthand, and maybe for the first time, what makes small-town life so appealing.
Ms. Zito is a reporter for the Washington Examiner, a columnist for the New York Post, and a co-author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.”
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