From spring to September is peak moving time. Amid the spread of the pandemic, some city dwellers, especially those living in hotspots such as New York City, have sought refuge in smaller, more insulated towns. Such a move might be temporary, but it reflects a larger relocation trend that has been underway for some time. According to the latest migration report by real estate brokerage Redfin, a record 26 percent of home searchers browsed for residences outside their metropolitan areas in the last two quarters of 2019.
“The general trend is that people are leaving expensive metros on the West Coast and on the East Coast for more affordable metros, more inland,” said Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather. In 2016, Fairweather relocated from San Diego for Seattle.
But today, mainly because of exorbitant housing costs, Washington state’s largest city joins New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., among others, on Redfin’s list of destinations home shoppers wish to depart.
Meanwhile, Boston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Austin and Tampa, among others, are drawing home buyers in for a slate of reasons — from affordability to lifestyle to employment.
Regardless of why people decamp one city in favor of another, relocation is, in many ways, an ordeal. There might be a home to sell and another to purchase at the same time — in two different cities. Belongings to pack and ship. Children to enroll in new schools. Pets to take along, too. A whole new community to blend into.
“Moving can be very overwhelming just in terms of figuring out every step that you need to take and also paying for all those steps up front,” said Fairweather. “It can be very daunting.”
Moving amid coronavirus
Most states have deemed moving companies an essential business, enabling people to relocate even amid the ongoing health crisis. Yet doing so calls for additional considerations and precautions.
Moving companies have adopted new best practices such as estimating costs through video calls in which customers show their homes and belongings.
“Some companies are also offering Facebook options so that clients can interact with a moving consultant on the other end,” said Rachel Peretz, director of marketing and business development at the American Moving & Storage Association. “It can be a combination of pictures and videos.”
When on site, crews and their customers should don masks and gloves and heed social distancing rules, said Peretz. She also advises families to designate one individual to handle all in-person interactions with movers and, when possible, offer them access to running water and soap for frequent handwashing.
Movers are also selling new cardboard boxes so clients do not have to expose themselves to any potential health risks using old packaging that grocery stores, among other businesses, are usually happy to give away. Well-rinsed plastic bins are another option.
While the moving industry has continued to facilitate relocations, costs are increasing due to coronavirus-induced complications.
“With the shipment of household goods, prices are going up in many cases, because movers are short on labor,” said Bill Mulholland, director of ARC Relocation, which is headquartered in Fairfax, Va. “There are definitely some challenges if the relocation is absolutely required.”
Linda Jackson tackled some coronavirus-related moving complications late last month, when her family moved to a Bowie, Md., home they had been remodeling for months while living in a rental apartment. Mere days before the scheduled move, Jackson’s movers canceled the job due to health concerns over the virus.
“I was pretty panicked because it [the notice] came in an email,” she said. “The thing is that I had just talked to them a couple of days before.”
Returning to the list of moving companies she had assembled, Jackson was able to contract another crew to move the family’s belongings from the apartment and from a storage facility. Because she had already transferred some boxes, the moving day turned out shorter than expected. But it cost about $600 more than what Jackson would have paid had the original movers not called off their appointment.
“Considering everything that’s going on with the pandemic, we are just grateful that we were able to pull this off at all,” said Jackson, who works for the International Rescue Committee.
Beyond the act of moving, a relocation might hit delays due to the currently sluggish real estate market and the stricter mortgage application requirements many lenders have enacted in response to the financial strains of the pandemic.
While not an insurmountable task, relocating is often smoother — especially during the current health crisis — with assistance from an employer, a relocation company, a real estate agent and a lender. Here is how each one of these can facilitate crucial aspects of the move:
Relocation companies often serve both individual clients and employers transferring or hiring out-of-state staff, and can handle many facets of the process that unfold in different locations. Yet there seems to be one kind of service that is almost universal.
“When someone’s relocating, they’re almost always going to need the shipment of household goods,” said Mulholland.
Gavin Bosco is vice president of household goods sales at Suddath, a global moving company that offers local, long distance and international moving services, based in Jacksonville, Fla. Company employees “will literally come in and pack and load everything from the home, including packing your clothes in your closet into wardrobe boxes and then hanging those same clothes in your new home’s closet – zero sweat equity and you don’t have to lift a finger,” he said.
However such service, is not cheap. Costs can depend on the weight of belongings and the distance traveled. Much like air fare rates, the day a client chooses for a move also affects the price. Weekends during the busy spring and summer months command a premium.
Still, large reputable relocation companies, with their in-house movers or vetted contractors, usually offer a safe alternative to what Bosco dubbed “a couple of guys and a truck.”
The need to carefully vet movers is an imperative Shree Sharma said she learned the hard way.
Almost two decades ago, when she left California to attend college in Florida, Sharma, a lawyer who until recently lived in Miami, said she hired movers who overcharged her, lost half of her belongings and delayed delivering the rest.
“I'm being ultra-careful about selecting the movers this time,” said Sharma who founded a biotech and finance consulting company last year. Early this year, she moved to Boston to grow the venture.
Allison Williams, another recent Boston transplant, faced a moving challenge as well but of another kind: her family's 100-pound German Shepherd. Size, weight and distance restrictions limited travel by air. A specialized pet relocation company had to chauffeur the canine from Portland, Ore., to Boston — charging $6,000.
“It's very expensive,” said Williams. “That was an unforeseen cost that we were kind of shocked by. But obviously, it's your dog. We didn't have a choice.”
The Williamses moved to Boston last April for her husband's job. At the time, Williams was pregnant, and they had a 4-year old daughter. A relocation package from her husband's employer provided a “seamless” relocation, Williams said.
While typical in the military, corporate relocation assistance often varies by company, industry and the employee's seniority. Help may range from offering a signing bonus to reimbursing moving-related expenses; from contracting with a relocation company to buying the employee's old house to covering closing costs for the purchase of a new residence.
For employers, “the average cost of relocating a homeowner is about $90,000,” said Mulholland. “The average cost of relocating a renter can be $40,000 or $50,000. Real estate's the most expensive part.”
Corporate assistance often carries deadlines.
“Many relocation packages have timelines on when you need to use them by,” said Rachel Swann, a San Francisco-based real estate agent with The Agency.
Swann owns corporate rentals, where transferees and new hires spend about two months while they search for a home to buy or rent long-term.
In downtown Boston, the Williams family lived in a corporate apartment for 10 days, waiting to close on a home in Winchester, a town north of the metro center. After looking at five houses for rent and twice as many for sale, the family opted to buy and are leasing their former residence in Portland.
Buying, renting or building
Real estate agents, who are proficient in relocations, can facilitate many aspects of the move — from picking a neighborhood to understanding the local peculiarities of the closing process. While many agents prefer buyers to visit their new cities to search for properties prior to the move, some also employ video calls to take clients on digital home tours.
In many instances, real estate agents can also consult with their clients whether to buy outright or to rent. Families with kids may gravitate toward a purchase.
“If somebody has a family and kids, generally they want to buy because they want to be able to figure out where their kids are going to go to school,” said Suzanne Klinkenberg, a real estate agent in Chandler, Ariz., with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.
Homeowners seeking to simultaneously buy and sell in disparate locations, though, could engage in a delicate balancing act, which calls for careful timing, financial prudence and trusted real estate professionals.
Late last year, Patty Wills, of El Dorado County, Calif., was uncertain the sell-and-purchase scenario would work for her, her husband and the two grandchildren they are raising. During a trip to Boise, Idaho in November, they found the ideal house in a pristine development in Eagle, about two hours northwest of the state's capital.
The seller in Eagle wanted to move out in January. If the Willses were to close on the residence, they would have had about a month to prepare their own home for the market, list it and find a buyer. The family considered a bridge loan, a short-term loan for a down payment backed by their current house. They did not qualify for one and their finances were stretched too thin to cover two mortgages.
“It seemed insurmountable to be able to pull everything together,” said Wills.
Then, their real estate agent introduced them to Cash Close, a new home buying and selling program by real estate service company HomeLight. The Willses sold their home to HomeLight at a reduced price but for cash, earning enough to make an offer on the house in Boise. HomeLight later sold their California home above the asking price. They received the profit from the sale and paid a fee for the arrangement.
Besides a bridge loan, other financing possibilities include a home equity line of credit and a relocation mortgage. The latter does not deviate from traditional loan products such as conventional, VA or FHA mortgages, but, in most cases, requires documents pertinent to the move — such as a job offer letter, for instance, if the borrower is relocating to assume a new position.
To select the best financial option, “speaking with a loan adviser, I would say, six months to a year in advance, would be advantageous,” said Shelby McDaniels, channel director for corporate home lending at JPMorgan Chase.
Because renting doesn’t carry the financial and logistical complexities of home buying-and-selling transactions, it is a viable option for many.
Sharma, who owned a condo in Miami for 17 years, decided to lease a residence in Boston's Seaport district, where she can easily meet clients.
“I'm not quite ready to buy in a city that's unfamiliar to me,” she said.
Renting also eases the pressure of making the financial commitment of homeownership in an unfamiliar city. Moreover, in some metropolitan areas, leasing might be financially advantageous for people who expect to soon move again.
In Houston, for instance, home values appreciate slowly. When someone relocates there for only a couple of years, “it wouldn't make sense transaction-wise for you to purchase because by the time you pay closing costs on the way in and on the way out, you're going to lose money,” said Paige Martin, leader of the Houston Properties Team with Keller Williams.
Buy-or-rent, though, could be a superficial dichotomy for some. Colleen March and her husband own an online technology company and moved from New York City to Austin with their three sons.
After looking at homes for sale with Coldwell Banker's Dorie Dillard, they decided to build their own residence. As the house was taking shape in Austin, Marchand would visit to check the progress. In person and on the phone, Dillard would answer their questions.
“You want to make sure you have an advocate for you,” Dillard said, adding that in Austin, builders prefer to work with agents rather than directly with clients.
Two months before their home was completed, Marchand and the kids moved to a hotel in Austin to acclimate and coordinate the final stage of the relocation. Late last year, the whole family settled in their new house, which is quadruple the size of the 850-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment they rented in New York.
“It was definitely incredibly stressful,” Marchand said of the relocation. “But there weren't any moments that I doubted the decision. There's zero regrets.”