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Pandemics provoke lots of pondering about vital necessities. For city dwellers like Alex McLeod, his wife and two young children, access to recreation tops the list after food and shelter.
This week, a moving van jammed with their belongings departs their residence in industrial Worcester, Massachusetts, dense with historic mill buildings, art museums and a juicy gamut of ethnic eateries, and heads for the quiet town of Sunapee, New Hampshire, lush with lakes, mountains and a smattering of general stores and ice cream shops.
McLeod, a 35-year-old marketing executive, put an offer on a three-bedroom home after walking around its exterior and watching a virtual tour. The house was occupied; due to safeguards around the coronavirus, he was unable to open kitchen drawers or peer into closets.
When his Boston-area office closed and employees were asked to work offsite, McLeod recognized a chance to relocate.
“It really came down to what we wanted our day-to-day life to look like,” said McLeod. When the lockdown began, he and his wife went hiking every weekend. “When I walk out my front door, do I want to see other residential buildings, or do I want to see a river, deer, wildlife and things we go on vacation for?”
The coronavirus is not provoking city folks like the McLeods to pack up in droves, but real estate agents in the rural towns of New Hampshire are responding to demand from cooped-up urbanites itching for wide-open spaces.
John Kinney, operations manager at the real estate firm Coldwell Banker Lifestyle, says that among the nine offices in New Hampshire and two in Vermont, agents are reporting at least a dozen out-of-region calls every two weeks. That’s unusual, he said. Typically, potential buyers are looking for second homes. Since the pandemic hit, they’re looking to relocate permanently.
Some want mountains and lakes; others prefer summer theater and good school systems. They all prioritize high-speed internet, Kinney said.
Stay-at-home orders accelerated the shift to and acceptance of remote work. Long term, people expect to work from home at least part-time, said Alison Bernstein, founder and president of Suburban Jungle, a New York-based start-up with a Boston office that gives free advice on suburban neighborhoods to families looking to flee the city. Suburban Jungle then connects clients with local real estate agents and collects a commission if a sale is brokered.
Many house-hunters are putting city proximity in the rearview with COVID-19, opting to plant themselves much further from the city than they might have before, said Bernstein. The number of clients she advises is up 350 percent compared to the same time last year.
Whether this exodus from metropolitan areas is a trend that will stick is too early to tell, said Ken Johnson, a demographer with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. He says it will be at least a year before U.S. Census data demonstrates any population shifts due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Cities were losing inhabitants to more suburban locations long before the pandemic. In the last few years, more people moved out of urban areas than moved in, says Johnson. In New Hampshire, with birth rates dropping, death rates rising and immigration at a near standstill, population growth has been modest, with most of it siphoned from other states. Regions in New Hampshire that beckon seasonal homeowners and retirees are seeing the highest growth.
Much is unknown about the coronavirus, but most people agree it spreads more easily in crowds. This consensus is prodding those with second homes in New Hampshire to make more use of them, said Johnson. He also theorizes that some who plan to eventually retire in their second homes may do so earlier. “And if you’re working from home, who’s going to be able to tell if you’re in the suburbs of Boston or you’re in Carroll County, as long as you have good internet service,” he said.
Brenda Leavitt, managing partner of Badger Realty in North Conway, said that, in particular, Berlin and Gorham are attracting potential vacation home buyers because of their affordability compared to surrounding regions. Families are telling her that if they need to shelter in place, they want an attractive option.
“Through the last month and a half, I can’t believe the number of inquiries,” she said.
One of those sales queries came from Carlsbad, California resident Justin Leed, who wants to relocate to the Mount Washington Valley area before the fall. “There are a million reasons,” he said, with the biggest around health and safety.
A California native and a self-employed engineering services professional, Leed lived in the Northeast for 10 years and always hoped to return with his family.
“Ideally we were going to stay [in Carlsbad] until both boys were finished with high school,” he said. “But everything really changed with this [the pandemic]. It’s moved up our plans.”
Leavitt expects the Leeds will need patience. Against a torrent of inquiries is a historically low inventory of housing. Homes that come on the market are sold in less than two months, according to the latest monthly report of the New Hampshire Association of Realtors.
There are plenty of buyers out there, says Kinney. “They just don’t have much to pick from.”
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