Masks on. Proper distancing. Nice weather for sitting outside and considering the world and where it is heading. (I know, it’s spiraling through this universe at insane speeds, but too few care about that.) I met with someone recently about some other topics, but the topic that couldn’t be ignored was “What comes next?”. We know the pandemic is changing things. Normal is so far in the past that it won’t catch up. A conversation about pandemics, economics, psychology, and personal finance was fascinating and welcome; but one theme I want to share here is where people may want to live. I suspect we’re witnessing the rebound from years of urbanization. At least some are going to change addresses that described which floor they lived on, for addresses that have enormous gaps between house numbers. The other benefit of the conversation; I sold three books. Yay!
I’ve been considering the move to rural spaces for years. I did it myself 15 years ago. Before I moved to the island 15 years ago the topic was academic. Since I became a real estate broker I’m seeing the practical application of the possibility.
Imagine being confined to an apartment or a condo for months. (Many of you won’t have to imagine it.) In some cases that means sharing the hallway, the elevator, and the laundry. Stay within those walls until the pandemic passes, and wonder how long that will be. Days were doable. Weeks were acceptable. Months get to be a bit much. Years? Oh, no.
The economy may be in trouble, but real estate is crazy busy. Since the Great Recession, the trend has been to lower inventories. On Whidbey Island, that drop has been about half in the last ten years. (See my presentation on AboutWhidbey.com for lots of details.) Just as the spring rise was about to temporarily increase inventory, the shut down shut that down. We now have less inventory in this summer than in recent winters. Supply is down. Demand may be up. Prices rise, and so they have. The lack of inventory may be why land is also selling rapidly, sometimes with multiple offers.
As one family summarized and paraphrased;
“We want a place where we (the parents) can work from home with a nice view, and the kids can play outside, maybe even in the water without anyone having to use a car or a bus.“
Whidbey Island isn’t the only place with water and views, and it is also not the only place getting lots of attention.
The other enabler of such a move is high-speed internet. The WorkFromHome orders encouraged people and businesses to find new ways to work. Get good enough internet access, and trade commutes and noisy neighborhoods for online meetings and natural surroundings.
Overlay the maps of places with views, places to play, and a way to work, and realize that the answer is more likely to be out of town than in the city.
Add in the desire to grow some veggies, maybe have some chickens, or even just have a lawn to relax and play on, and find that suburbia has that ‘-urbia’ root.
Hobby farms get popular. So do gardening gloves, fencing, and the realization of where food, water, and waste come from and go to.
I don’t expect the trend to the countryside to empty the cities. Only 16% of the US population lives outside cities. Of the urban 84%, even 10% of them moving (8.4% of the population) would overwhelm rural populations. That economic boost may be welcome in many small towns that have been struggling. The towns that lost the kids to the big city may be getting them, and others, back. Culturally, well, there may be some adjustments.
I watch such things as an investor as much as I do as a real estate broker, as well as a resident of a rural county.
Aside from the money needed to move, the enablers are communications and delivery services. There may be an increase in seed sales, but streaming services, online meeting platforms, and a variety of ways to get goods to and from the house’s front door may be more profitable investments.
People may move from the city, but they tend to bring their city sensibilities with them. Rural life is casual and pragmatic. Urban life tends to bureaucratic. City regulations are tighter, or have more people in the bureaucracy to enforce the rules. Rural counties have people scattered by design, which also makes it harder for governing bodies to check on every house, every permit, to peek into every barn to see if there’s a house inside. (Yes, that’s a thing. Finding it difficult to legally get a permit for a house? In some places some resort to a less, um, approved method. Build a barn. Build a barn, then build something house-like inside, maybe simply park a nice RV inside – for storage, yeah, that’s it, for storage. Not a recommended solution, but it does happen.)
(Personal peeve. City folks also take a while to dial down the volume. City voices need to shout over a background hubbub of sirens, traffic, air conditions, and backup horns. At my house, outside the tourist season, the loudest voices at night may be a seal or coyotes a mile away. In summer, they have to compete with shouts and music cranked to 11. Newbies eventually quiet down and realize that too many lights at night make houses look like concentration camps. Go subtle.)
It may not make much difference in this election, but a switch and city values and people moving to rural areas may change representations and power centers.
A simple desire to have a quiet, pleasant place to work, raise a family, and play a bit may have long-term implications for politics and investments. I haven’t done much with retail lately, and I certainly won’t be as interested in businesses that rely on storefronts – unless they are hardware and farm supply stores.
As I mentioned in #RuralDistancing, rural means space. Take a place’s population and divide by acres and the area of a circle. In parts of Seattle; “That translates to 13.9 people per acre. Not bad considering acres. That’s a 32 foot radius around each person.” On Whidbey that’s; “0.5 people per acre. That’s a 160 foot radius around each resident.” You want room? We got room. We may not have enough water or septic-friendly land for much more than that, but we have room.
A little fiber-optic cabling, a lot of space, some appealing nature, and it is easy to see why there may just be an return to rural living. It certainly has meant the right environment for great conversations for me.