Rural areas and small towns rise in popularity as remote workers seek opportunity in more affordable communities

By Nicole Friedman

Nov. 3, 2022 9:00 am ET

The rise of remote work and the ballooning cost of housing in major metro areas are leading Americans to move much farther away when buying a home.

Buyers who purchased homes in the year ended in June moved a median of 50 miles from their previous residences, according to a National Association of Realtors survey released Thursday. That distance is the highest on record in annual data going back to 2005 and follows five straight years in which the median distance moved was constant at 15 miles, NAR said.Stanton and Donna Zeff moved from Texas to Florida this year, before Mr. Zeff’s retirement, since he works remotely.PHOTO: MICHELE RUEFF

The moving distance likely soared because many employers solidified their in-office requirements, giving some remote workers the certainty to move farther from their offices, said Jessica Lautz, NAR’s vice president of research.

In mid-2021, “people had the freedom and the ability with the low-interest rates to say, ‘I’m going to make this move now,’” Ms. Lautz said.

Stanton and Donna Zeff had planned to move to Florida when Mr. Zeff retired in about six years. Instead, they decided to make the move sooner because Mr. Zeff can now work remotely as a program manager.

“I can do my job out of the office just as well as I can do it in the office,” he said.

They sold their home near Dallas in January and recently bought a four-bedroom house in Davenport, Fla., which includes a suite for Mr. Zeff’s mother, who will be moving with them.

Smaller communities were especially popular with buyers: 48% of home purchases were in small towns and rural areas, a record in data going back to 2003 and up from 32% a year earlier, the NAR survey showed.

Suburbs are traditionally the most popular destinations for home buyers, but the share of suburban home purchases dropped to 39% from 51% the prior year, according to NAR. Only 10% of purchases were in urban areas, down from 13% the year before.

NAR polled about 4,850 people who bought primary homes during the 12-month period. News Corp, the owner of The Wall Street Journal, also operates under a license from NAR.

The survey reflects a 12-month period in which the housing market was upended by the surge in interest rates. The Covid-19 pandemic spurred the biggest housing boom in years as people took advantage of record-low mortgage rates and sought more space to work from home. Home prices soared to record highs. Now that mortgage rates have more than doubled, home purchases have dwindled and buyers have focused more on affordability.

Dana and Madison Christoffersen moved their family from California to Idaho for the lower cost of living.PHOTO: LAUREN WARBINGTON/EAST BAY PORTRAITS

The typical distance moved rose more for repeat buyers than for first-time buyers in the year that ended in June, Ms. Lautz said. Most repeat buyers have benefited in recent years from rising home prices, enabling them to sell their homes at a profit and put the proceeds into their next purchase.

Dana and Madison Christoffersen, who lived with their two children in Livermore, Calif., sold their home in April for $1.25 million. Six months later, they bought a bigger, newly built house in Nampa, Idaho, for $585,000, Mr. Christoffersen said.

He got a new job in Idaho in the construction industry, and his parents, who lived in California, also moved to Idaho. The family wanted a slower pace of life and lower cost of living, Mr. Christoffersen said.

“We’re really excited about it,” Mr. Christoffersen said. “We could afford a big, nice house in Idaho.”

For other buyers, the opportunity for remote work meant they could exit more crowded and expensive places such as the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York City. Those metro areas ranked among the biggest net loss of home buyers between March 2020 and February 2022, according to an analysis by mortgage-finance company Freddie Mac.