The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Choosing the suburbs over city life during the pandemic

The Anderson family recently moved from San Jose to Gig Harbor, Wash., a small town about an hour from Seattle. From left: Casey, 11; Adrienne, 13; Cindy, 39; and Scott, 42, walk their dogs in their new cul de sac. (Stuart Isett for The Washington Post)

For Scott and Cindy Anderson and their two children, virtual school and remote work provided an opportunity to make a big move from San Jose to Gig Harbor in Washington state.

“We have lots of family in Washington [state], including my parents, two brothers and my oldest nephew and their families, so we had talked for a couple of years about moving there,” says Scott, 42, who works for Blue Lava, a cybersecurity firm in Silicon Valley. “When my office went 100 percent remote and the kids’ school went virtual, it was an opportunity for us to explore moving.”

The Andersons’ children were each about to change schools, one going to middle school and the other to high school, so that also seemed to line up as a better time to move than once they were settled into their next schools, Scott says.

“The pandemic pulled everyone out of their immediate fear about being uprooted because we were already uprooted by remote work and school,” says Scott. “We’re leaving a community we love but we’re excited to settle into the new place.”

The Andersons are part of a growing movement of city dwellers moving to suburban or rural locations.

Apartment and condo communities get inventive to keep residents safe and connected during the pandemic

During the second quarter of 2020,’s quarterly Cross Market Demand Report found that 51 percent of property searches on the site from city residents in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas were for homes in the suburbs of those metro areas, a record high since the website began tracking that data in 2017. In addition, Redfin real estate brokerage reported that a record number (27.4 percent) of users were looking to move to a different metro area during the second quarter of 2020.

“Covid-19 has acted as a catalyst for people who were already thinking of moving to the suburbs,” says Jamie Koppersmith, an associate broker with McEnearney Associates in the District. “Some of my clients are thinking that now that they don’t have to be downtown for work every day, maybe they can get more living space for the same amount of money in the suburbs.”

Multiple factors are driving the interest in moving, including low mortgage rates that increase affordability for buyers; the ability of many people to work remotely; and concern that some city amenities will take years to be widely available again.

The pandemic has also led many people to reevaluate their lifestyle, with some recognizing that they want to live closer to their family. Other city dwellers want to have more living space and expand their access to outdoor space, two features that are harder to come by and more expensive within city limits.

“The past five months or so have been great for Greenwich and other Connecticut towns,” says Yashmin Lloyds, a real estate agent with Compass in Greenwich, Conn. “A lot of young families who planned to move from Manhattan in five years or so sped up their plans by two or three years because of covid-19. I’m also seeing a lot of buyers from all over the country who have moved to be closer to their aging parents because of the pandemic. Some of them are looking for properties with a private guest space or the ability to build a guesthouse for their parents.”

More than 16,000 New Yorkers switched their mail to suburban Connecticut addresses from March through June, according to U.S. Postal Service data reported by the Hartford Courant newspaper.

“We’ve seen a big volume of buyers since the pandemic started coming from Seattle and from cities in California to more rural areas outside Tacoma,” says Lindsay Weingart, a real estate agent with Redfin in Pierce County, Tacoma and Gig Harbor in Washington state. “People are realizing they can do their jobs remotely indefinitely or only go to an office once a week or so and they want more space for their money.”

Weingart recently worked with a couple who moved from north of Seattle to Gig Harbor on Puget Sound about 45 minutes south of Seattle.

“They sold their house for $740,000 and bought a house for $500,000 that is bigger, has more land and is in a sought-after school district,” says Weingart. “A big priority for people who have moved during the pandemic is to get more outdoor space and a bigger house, especially for families.”

Most sellers, especially in the Seattle area, have a lot of equity and can sell easily because there are still not enough homes available in that market, says Weingart.

“They can use that equity and make a bigger down payment on a less expensive home that has more living space,” says Weingart.

“No one seems too worried about leaving city life behind, because they can get to shops and restaurants within a 10- or 15-minute drive, to Tacoma in 20 minutes and to Seattle in 45 minutes from Gig Harbor.”

Seeking nature and space

Bert Aultman and Sara Towner, a married couple in their 40s, had lived in the Eckington neighborhood in Northeast Washington for 20 years. They say they loved their community and hadn’t envisioned leaving it.

Until recently.

“We’re definitely city people,” says Towner. “But Bert has been getting emails for years about properties in Annapolis, and a couple of months ago we decided to take a little field trip and look at one.”

Now Aultman and Towner own a single-family home on Lake Hillsmere with a dock and sold their townhouse-style condo in Eckington.

“Covid-19 made us realize that some of the places we love in the city may not come back and that we’re ready to embrace a lifestyle that’s more about outdoor activity,” says Aultman. “We loved our condo and the neighborhood, but there’s a ton of construction going on around there and we were ready for something different.”

Study: Pandemic spurred a wave of relocations

For Ashira Beutler-Greene, 34, and her husband, William Beutler, 41, the pandemic sparked an interest in looking for a place to buy outside a city. The couple, who live in an apartment in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Northwest Washington, looked for a place to buy in the city and in several other cities for two years and now will move to the Charlottesville area.

“The pandemic made us start to look at options outside of a city and convinced us of the value of having more space and a quieter existence,” says Beutler-Greene. “Our budget of $500,000 to $700,000 limited us in the city and it was astounding the types of homes we could consider once we started looking in smaller towns.”

The couple is purchasing a single-family home in Crozet, Va., near Charlottesville with 3,000 square feet, double the size of their city apartment.

“The house has three bedrooms and two bathrooms, but we also have the ability to add more bedrooms and bathrooms inside and to convert two garages into home offices,” says Beutler-Greene. “In D.C. we had looked at places over our budget that were much smaller and needed fixing up. When we started looking in central Virginia, especially outside of suburban areas, we had a choice of places that were architecturally interesting and had some land.”

Beutler-Greene works for a scientific nonprofit organization, currently from a home office. Her husband owns a digital marketing firm and has worked from a home office for more than a decade.

Money matters

Approximately 42 percent of Americans were working from home in June, according to a study by Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research. Many companies plan to extend the option of working at home indefinitely.

“A lot of companies, especially in the financial sector, don’t plan to reopen their offices for six more months or a year and they won’t require people to come in person every day,” says Lloyds. “That means it’s easier to consider moving farther out because they don’t expect to commute daily.

Towner, who works for the federal General Services Administration in the District, has been working remotely since the pandemic began and has the flexibility to continue to work from home most of the time in the future.

“We both assume we’ll need to commute into the city sometimes, but I expect to work remotely at least 60 percent of the time,” says Aultman, who works for Procon Consulting, a construction management firm with an office in Arlington, Va.

For the Andersons, moving from Silicon Valley to a small community 45 miles south of Seattle was a financially easy decision.

“We owned our house in San Jose, which was a 1,500-square-foot house on a small lot, since 2004,” says Scott. “We sold it for $940,000 and bought a house in Gig Harbor for $640,000. Our new house is in a nice neighborhood, with 2,800 square feet and it’s on a one-acre lot with a woodland view.”

The Andersons say they are happy to be connected to nature, living in a quieter place and yet within a short drive of Puget Sound and shops and restaurants. Tacoma and Seattle are also easily accessible by car.

“A secondary driver of the move was to have money to pay for college in the future,” says Scott. “It was especially difficult to save money for college as a one-income family in Silicon Valley.”

Accessing home equity in a tight economy has become problematic

While some urban homeowners sell high and buy low when they move outside the city, others spend more when they move but get more for the money.

“Our condo in D.C. had about 1,600 square feet on two levels with a small outdoor space and our house in Annapolis has 3,200 square feet with four bedrooms, a yard and a dock,” says Aultman. “We’ll probably eventually get a boat.”

Aultman and Towner sold their District condo for approximately $740,000 and purchased their new home for $880,000, but they doubled their living space and now have the waterfront view they crave.

In Greenwich, Conn., Lloyds says buyers from Manhattan are attracted by the idea of getting more square footage and recreational amenities such as a private pool, a gym and sometimes a home theater or tennis court.

“Some people are leaving a rental apartment in Manhattan and buying in the $2 million to $3 million range in Greenwich or homes around $1.2 million or so in some of the lower-cost towns,” says Lloyds. “People who came from a small apartment in New York are relieved to get more space and get away from elevators, especially families.”

Affluent urban residents with the ability to work from home are positioned to take advantage of the new reality created by the pandemic, but it remains to be seen how many will choose to move.

“I’m not seeing any panic among buyers or sellers in terms of fleeing the city to move to the suburbs,” says Koppersmith.

“It’s not people running for the hills. It’s just a moment for people to look at their options. The pandemic kind of tipped the scales for some people.”