Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Outlying Living

Remember when many homebuyers were going urban in a major way? To squeeze themselves into trendy city communities, they were willing to accept small condos so long as they could walk to restaurants, clubs and coffeeshops.

But suddenly much of that fondness for city life has diminished -- thanks in large measure to COVID-19. Countless young buyers, along with many elders, now hanker for the calm, safety and maximum elbow room afforded by suburbia. Indeed, some are even searching for supersized property in semi-rural exurbia.

Of course, those experiencing financial reversals due to the pandemic are in no position for home shopping. Yet many buyers lucky enough to hold jobs suited to remote work are thrilled they can now reasonably consider a large home in an outlying area, says Sid Davis, the author of “A Survival Guide for Buying a Home.”

“Demand well beyond core cities is exploding. That’s because the farther out buyers go, the more their money stretches, enabling them to fulfill their wish for an exceptionally large property,” says Davis, who’s worked as an independent real estate broker in the business for more than 30 years.

The excitement about buying opportunities in non-urban areas is reflected in soaring confidence on the part of homebuilders, many of whom focus on the construction of large properties in outlying areas, where buildable land is less pricey than near cities.

“The suburban shift for homebuilding is keeping builders busy, supported on the demand side by low interest rates,” says Robert Dietz, the chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders (nahb.org).

Dietz says builders throughout the country are now inundated with calls from those living in high-density markets who want to relocate to a spacious new home well outside their metro center.

Some housing analysts say the quest for a very spacious home -- in excess of 3,000 square feet -- represents a return to the traditional view that a large property enhances quality of life.

“There’s something beguiling about big houses. Bigger is always better in America, assuming you can afford it,” says James W. Hughes, a housing expert and dean emeritus at Rutgers University.

But Hughes and other real estate analysts caution buyers against rushing into the purchase of a huge home without considering the implications going forward --especially if you must go quasi-rural to afford an oversized place.

“Review your realistic needs. For example, if you and your spouse work from home a lot, you might truly need spare bedrooms for dedicated home-based offices. But a formal dining room could be superfluous,” he says.

Here are a couple of other pointers for buyers:

-- Don’t rule out the need for a reasonable commute.

In recent years, many people bullish on large houses were nevertheless unwilling to accept a lengthy commute in exchange for more living space and a sizable yard. It was obvious they could get more house for the money in outer suburbs, but they refused to accept such tough trade-offs.

Still, the surge in remote working arrangements brought by COVID-19 has convinced many buyers that they’ll be entitled to work from home into the indefinite future --even after the pandemic has lifted.

“The outlook for remote work has generally become quite positive on the part of employers,” Davis says.

But he urges buyers to think beyond the pandemic to a time when companies might reevaluate their remote-work policies away from what they currently allow.

“What if your boss decides he wants you in the office two or more days of the week for team-building meetings and you’ve moved to a rural area a three-hour drive away? Or what if you must change to a company that doesn’t like telework? All these are realistic possibilities post-COVID,” Davis says.

To hedge their bets on remote work going into the future, he recommends buyers consider no property that’s more than a 60-minute commute from their current office or an employment hub where they might likely work.

“After the pandemic, you don’t want to get stuck with a punishing commute that steals your personal time,” he says.

-- Realize your floor plan will matter along with square footage.

Fred Meyer, a longtime real estate broker and appraiser, says many parents of school-age children want a house with a large master suite that’s segregated from the cluster of bedrooms where their kids reside. This is especially likely if their offspring are teenagers who thrive on loud music and games.

“It’s common nowadays for homebuyers to ask for ‘his and hers’ home offices. They want these home offices separated from the main living areas of the property. This requires lots of space,” Meyer says.

In addition, many buyers continue to yearn for exceptionally large kitchens with professional-grade appliances that flow into a great room where everyone can gather. Plus, they’re more eager than ever for a large yard.

But as Meyer notes, many buyers of very large houses make minimal use of some of their spaces. For example, he questions whether home fitness rooms will be as appreciated after public gyms fully reopen.

“Especially in areas where property taxes are high and rising, you don’t want to own a house with extra rooms you’ll never use,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)