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Reverse migration: Moving to cities while others flee

Kelly Shoul and Alex White spent years trying to get out of their house in York, Pennsylvania, only to be told repeatedly by real estate brokers that their only option was to sell at a loss. But when COVID-19 hit and upended the market, they were able to not just sell their home; they could make $30,000 in the process.

Shoul, 30, and White, 32, bought their three-bedroom, two-bath house in 2016 for $132,000. The headaches of homeownership began almost immediately. A blocked septic pipe flooded their basement. The water heater broke. They discovered not one but two layers of botched linoleum tiling beneath their floorboards.

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“Within the first year we realized we wanted to sell,” said Shoul, who estimates that in addition to sacrificing most of his weekends to home repairs for the past four years, the couple also spent between $10,000 and $15,000 on fixes, not counting nearly $35,000 in damage that was covered by home insurance.

The pandemic created a frenzied demand for suburban homes, driven in part by city dwellers seeking more space for their families as remote work and virtual schooling now drag into a second year. But for some longtime suburbanites, this rush from urban areas has created an opening to be seized. With the pandemic’s housing market offering the chance to sell suburban homes for a tidy profit, they’re listing their houses and moving into apartments in the city — reversing the urban exodus trend.

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When they bought their home, Shoul was working as an accountant, but she was hoping to build a photography business. She and White, a drafting engineer, had dreams of moving out West and settling somewhere urban.

“We felt like if we could sell the house and get rid of some of this dead weight, maybe I could go full-time in my photography business. And we could get an apartment,” Shoul said. “And then COVID struck, and we just kept hearing people say it was a seller’s market.”

The Boston skyline, March 30, 2021. Suburban homeowners who have profited from the urban exodus during the pandemic are leaving small-town life behind to find out what they have been missing.
The Boston skyline, March 30, 2021. Suburban homeowners who have profited from the urban exodus during the pandemic are leaving small-town life behind to find out what they have been missing. (Kayan Szymczak/The New York Times)

They put their home on the market in September, and in three days they received 13 offers. They sold it for $162,000. Six days later, they packed up their two dogs and moved to Denver, where they now rent an apartment for $1,375 a month and enjoy building amenities like a gym, pool and dog park. Shoul is now working as a photographer full time, having used part of the $30,000 in profit to launch her own elopement photography business, In Love and Adventure. Both say they prefer city life to their isolated past in Pennsylvania.

“Even with the pandemic, I felt like I wanted to be closer to other people,” Shoul said. “And now we can get food and even groceries delivered. Before we had just one pizza place that delivered to us, but now we can get anything we want.”

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John Pham is an insurance strategist who also runs a popular personal finance blog, The Money Ninja. When the pandemic hit, he owned a three-bedroom home in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and realized he should take his own financial advice.

“I felt like it was a good time to sell high in suburbia and buy low in Boston,” he said.

Pham, 39, was a bachelor in 2008 when he bought his house, but in 2018 he met and married Maryna Stasenko, 35, a fashion blogger originally from Ukraine. She was eager to move into a more urban setting, and Pham, who has been working from home for the past year, was in no hurry to return to his hour-plus commute to downtown. He was tired of home renovation projects as well.

“As a busy late-30s professional, you just have less free time to mow the lawn and stain the deck,” he said.

The couple put their home on the market in October for $280,000. Within a week, they had 16 offers, including an all-cash buyer who offered $320,000 with no contingencies. They accepted and in February moved into a 1,300-square-foot condo in Boston with skyline and harbor views.

The city is still hushed from COVID-19, but they are hopeful that by summer, its restaurants, museums and attractions will spring back to life.

“My job is to look at what’s going to happen in the future and make my best guess,” Pham said. “By moving to the city now, are prices better? Are my predictions right? I think a lot of people who moved away from the city will think, down the road, ‘OK, now I have more room and I have that home office, but I really miss everything that a city like Boston has to offer.’”

The exurban migration created by the pandemic is unfolding in cities all across the United States. Manhattan in January saw a 12.8% year-over-year decline in population, according to Placer.ai, a company that analyzes foot traffic and location data. Brooklyn, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles each lost tens of thousands of residents in the past year as well, according to a mymove.com study analyzing Postal Service change of address requests.

But after a year of pandemic lockdowns, it seems that younger homeowners are less inclined to give up on the city than older ones. A February study from Opendoor, a real estate tech company, showed that 32% of buyers feel differently about where they want to live as a result of the pandemic; and 35% of the millennials surveyed said they prefer to be in a city around others.

Juan Martinez is one of them. He grew up in Chandler, Arizona, a suburb southeast of Phoenix, but while he and his wife, Gabby, were happy in their 1,400-square-foot home there, they returned to Denver over and over on vacation.

“For the longest time we both wanted to move to a city,” Gabby Martinez, 31, said.

They loved Denver’s climate and pace, but one furry factor was holding them back: Ownership of pit bulls was illegal in Denver, and the couple have a pit bull named Simba.

In November, however, two shifts occurred: Juan Martinez, also 31, was offered a position as director of operations for a company in Broomfield, 15 miles outside Denver, and Denver’s pit bull ban was overturned. They sold their home to Zillow for $326,000 that same month and moved into a townhouse in downtown Denver two months later.

There have been some adjustments: The sirens and street noise seem very loud. Simba is getting used to living without a backyard. And while they say they don’t feel unsafe, they opted to install an alarm system that they use every time they leave the house.

“We never used to lock our doors in Chandler, and now we’ve invested in security equipment,” Juan Martinez said. “We weren’t expecting that.”

Despite the current noise level, however, they are eager for COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted so they can get a feel for the city at full volume, including the breweries and art galleries just outside their door that still have limited hours and capacity.

“We’re so curious about what it’s going to be like,” Gabby Martinez said.

For some homeowners, no longer being bound by the constraints of a commute or even a physical office means they can flirt with a new location or lifestyle — provided they sell their home and shift to a short-term or month-to-month lease.

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“The one thing COVID has done for everybody is, it’s said, you don’t have to wait until a certain time to make a move or explore options,” said F. Ron Smith, a broker with Smith & Berg Partners in Los Angeles.

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“I’ve got clients right now who are selling their homes and saying, ‘You know what? Instead of buying right now, I’m going to rent in a neighborhood I’ve always been curious about, to try it out,’” he said, adding that he himself sold his home recently and is choosing to rent while the market remains so erratic.

“If you look at the long-term projection on interest rates, they’ll tick up a bit in the next 18 to 24 months but nothing radical. So you’re not jeopardizing your position by not buying now. And you’re giving yourself an opportunity to explore a new area,” he said.

Much of the motivation for the rush to the suburbs, said Thad Wong, co-founder of the Chicago brokerage @properties, wasn’t as much about fleeing the city as it was about fleeing multifamily units. Many of Chicago’s urban neighborhoods are packed with single-family homes, and “we’ve actually had some of the greatest sales ever in the city in the last six months,” he said.

Wong also predicts that for some buyers who left cities during the pandemic, the coming years will bring an acute sense of buyer’s remorse.

“I don’t believe people will be working from home forever,” he said. “And if you’re a creative person who wants to be around ideas happening, and you thrive on that energy, you’re dying in the suburbs.”

Chris Hartranft and Gina Hardin, both 53, spent 13 years feeling that way. They renovated a single-family home in Kensington, Maryland, but by the time 2020 rolled around, it seemed like that dream house was holding them back from their dreams.

“We love to travel, and in the first couple of years, we didn’t go anywhere because every extra weekend we had a project — we had to redo the kitchen, replace the electrical, pull out the carpet, you name it,” Hardin said.

Like much of the nation, they started working from home in March 2020. Hardin is a sales manager for Thomson Reuters; Hartranft is a finance professional. In July, they put on their masks and ventured into downtown Washington for ice cream. It was a pandemic revelation.

“We realized we could get takeout, sit in a park at an outdoor table, go for a walk. I almost felt normal, for the first time,” Hardin said.

They listed their home that month, asking $599,000 and accepting an offer of $621,000. In September they moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Washington, where their $4,500 in monthly rent includes underground parking, a rooftop pool, a yoga room and a WeWork-style business center. Living in the city, they say, has helped them stay active, and even with social distancing measures still firmly in place, they feel better being surrounded by other people.

“One of the things we realized during COVID is you only get so many trips around the sun,” Hardin said. “If there are things in your life that you’re not taking advantage of, like living in a great city like Washington, D.C., then you should do it.”

c.2021 The New York Times Company

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