Househunting in a Pandemic
Refugees from big cities have made housing markets across the country too hot for locals.
Like many young people, I do not expect to become a homeowner anytime soon. And not for lack of trying. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been a constant house hunter. I don’t foresee an end to my search.
My predicament is common, especially among fellow first-time homebuyers. We got into the market at the worst time possible. When nationwide lockdowns and months of civic unrest made urban living undesirable last year, we were among the hordes of city dwellers rushing to the suburbs. We watched with envy as more than 2 million people bought houses and the national homeownership rate surged to its highest levels since the Bush years. We were frustrated that the uptick was most pronounced among the boomers, the generation that already possesses most of the nation’s wealth, whom we generally regard with disdain.
After all, the story was much different for us. In the clinical language of the Pew Research Center, the increase in the homeownership rate among the younger generations was “not statistically significant.” That’s no wonder. It’s only getting harder to buy a home, even as sales continue to spike. This summer the average price of a home nationwide creeped up toward $400,000, a dramatic increase even from last year. In September, the share of first-time homebuyers fell to its lowest point in two years.
There are a number of reasons for this, and almost none of them correspond to the carefree stereotypes about millennials and my own age cohort, the zoomers. Most of us want security just as much as our elders cling to it. And we’re just as persistent. This summer, for instance, a friend only a few years older than me placed nearly forty offers before he secured a house. He didn’t particularly like the place; it wasn’t in a desirable location; and he paid too much for it. But what else could he do? His wife was about to give birth to their third child, and his family needed more space.
Many other people have found themselves in similar situations. For whatever reason, they needed a house immediately, and so they bought the first one they could. They waived the inspection and often bid sight unseen. That’s the sort of stuff realtors normally discourage. It was only when these people moved into their new homes that they discovered their costly error. I almost made that mistake myself, when I unexpectedly secured a house this summer. An inspection, conducted at the urging of my wife, revealed that the place had an unsteady foundation and an essentially nonexistent furnace.
But that was back when I had more hope. I rent in the near suburbs of Washington, D.C., and by now the housing supply here has dried up. The same will soon be true of the far suburbs and exurbs. Right now it is all but impossible to buy a single family home for less than $600,000 on the Virginia side of the city. In Maryland it’s a bit easier, but often only if you’re willing to dump tens of thousands of dollars into repairs. “The houses up here are all Frankensteins,” one realtor recently joked to me as we took a turn around Bladensburg, Maryland.
Of course, my friends tell me, I could always move out of the D.C. area. Many others have anyway. Last year the Midwest and the South experienced the largest influx of people, most of whom were fleeing New York, Illinois, Connecticut, and California — already pricey states made unbearable by their pandemic response.
But decamping to the heartland is only a solution for a certain sort of well-off person without too many commitments. My work, on the other hand, requires me to be in a particular place, which unfortunately for me happens to be one of the most expensive cities in the country. Other people I know have the luxury of working from their laptops anywhere. But that freedom comes with a price. Even if you leave the city and buy a cheap house in the Midwest, you’re still tied to your former home by a remote job. That life is a sort of exile, and I can’t imagine many people remaining satisfied with it for long.
And in any case, the lifestyle of the urban exodus has had catastrophic effects on the people already living in these newly repopulated small towns. Just recently I was standing on a friend’s front porch in a small Michigan town. He and his wife both work, and they bought their house several years ago for less than $50,000. It was little more than a shell, rotted through after decades of neglect, and they have spent most of their free time making it livable.
They wouldn’t be able to afford it today. Since the pandemic, an influx of people from all over the country and the rush for housing has doubled the value of nearby houses in a similar state of decay. Out-of-towners snap them up and move in or, more often, rent them out to the people who are now unable to buy. Nearly everyone on my friend’s block is now a renter, and many are selling their homes because they can no longer afford to pay their property taxes.
That insight disturbed me. The same cycle that made homeownership impossible for all but the affluent in the cities is replicating itself in the small towns at an accelerated rate. And I refuse to participate in upending an established community, even if I could get a relatively good deal on a house.
Ultimately, that same resolve is what will keep me in Washington, likely as a renter for the next decade. I grew up around here, and my entire family still lives here. We’ve gone to the same churches and schools for decades. We pass cars and clothes on to each other. To leave would be a betrayal of the shared understanding that our way of life can be preserved and maintained for the next generation. Perhaps it’s a vain, comically vague hope, but I believe that if more people prized their hometowns in our way, the pandemic-driven rush on housing would have been a non-event.
Nic Rowan is managing editor of The Lamp magazine.