Has COVID Mover’s Remorse Already Set in?

Can’t-miss buying opportunities, coupled with a healthy dose of mover’s remorse, are starting to send people back to Boston again in droves. Better get in now before it’s too late.

Which would you rather have in your backyard: this New Hampshire housing development, or the entire city of Boston? / Photo via Woosterum/Shutterstock (Suburbs); Photo via Prasit Photo/Getty Images (city)

Laura Aberle had been living in the same apartment near Alewife for around seven years when she decided it was time for her soon-to-be-husband, Tyner Lawrence, to move in. Together, they made the best of their 600-square-foot digs, creating a little extra breathing room with some strategically placed new furniture and shelving in December 2019. For added flair, Aberle purchased macrame from a local artist to hang on the walls, and Lawrence installed track lighting under the kitchen cabinets. It was time, they thought, to make it feel like a home for both of them.

Almost as quickly as the new décor went up, Lawrence was ready to take it all down. Listening intently to NPR reports about a novel coronavirus spreading through China and Europe on his walks around the neighborhood that winter, he figured it was only a matter of time before the crisis began wreaking havoc closer to home. As the news got grimmer by the day, so too did the prospect of staying confined to their tiny apartment. “It was starting to feel like the walls were shrinking in on us,” Lawrence says.

The day Massachusetts declared a state of emergency, the couple packed their things and pointed their car north toward central New Hampshire, where Lawrence had purchased a home several years earlier. They figured they’d hunker down there until things returned to normal—whenever that would be. As weeks turned into months, Aberle decided to break the lease on her longtime apartment. “It was very unclear,” Aberle says. “We thought we might be here for years.”

In the beginning, the couple enjoyed living away from the action. New Hampshire had its charms: fewer people who might infect them, more open space, lots of natural beauty. But soon, the drawbacks started piling up. They were a two-hour drive from their friends and family. There was no real sense of community—and certainly no takeout options. Mice found their way into their car as temperatures dropped. That time they heard a baby bear on a hike wasn’t ideal. The region’s bountiful Trump banners grew more sinister after Election Day passed. And then there were the gunshots in the distance, ostensibly from hunters. It was all a far cry from the neighborly streets near their old apartment.

So when Lawrence heard the news of Pfizer’s 95-percent-effective coronavirus vaccine, he opened a new tab on his computer’s browser and typed in Zillow.com. From his spacious three-bedroom, two-bathroom home deep in the woods of New Hampshire, he began scrolling through properties for sale. It was time to move back to Boston.

By now, the story of people abandoning cities for more green space (and a proper home office) during COVID times rings almost cliché. According to a Pew Research Center survey, around one in five adults in the United States either moved or knows someone who moved during the pandemic. The phenomenon has been particularly pronounced in Boston, which, according to ZIP code change data collected by LinkedIn’s Economic Graph, ranks among the top U.S. cities losing residents. As spring turned to summer and summer to fall, the area saw families abandoning their cramped condos in favor of hybrid learning in the suburbs and exurbs; college students and recent grads moving back in with their parents; and well-off young professionals deciding to rent spacious accommodations beyond urban centers to wait things out. By the end of 2020, the median sale price for single-family homes outside of Boston had jumped $50,000 since March, per the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. Meanwhile, in the city, the median sale price for a condo dropped by more than $40,000 in the same time period. It seemed, for a while, that Boston was losing its appeal to, well, just about every demographic group.

Still, as more people are jabbed with the vaccine every day—and a life restored to some semblance of normalcy doesn’t seem as far off as it once did—many former Bostonians are again seeing the value of city living, and in many cases realizing the grass wasn’t greener in the country after all. Prevu, a real estate tech company and digital homebuyer platform, has seen a surge in buyer sign-ups and tour requests in downtown Boston neighborhoods again, according to cofounder and co-CEO Thomas Kutzman. Before that, he says, the suburbs reigned supreme. “We see a few key reasons for this,” Kutzman says. “The removal of election uncertainty, and news of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in early November really marked that return of buyer confidence in Boston.”

Many urban buyers on the platform are angling to take advantage of low interest rates on mortgages—and they’re looking to beat the rush before normalcy returns in the wake of widespread vaccination, Kutzman says: “I think there’s probably a three-to-six-month window still before the vaccine’s at critical mass in the population, that you can still get a deal.”

Local real estate agents echo that sentiment. “I’m just shouting from the rooftops to anybody who will listen,” says Dana Bull, a real estate agent with Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty. “If you’re in a position to buy a place in the city, buy a place in the city right now.” Even if you just left.

For two of Realtor Toni Gilardi’s clients, the decision to pack up and leave Boston happened in a flash.

When the COVID shutdowns started last spring, the couple, both of whom owned condos in the North End, decided to put their respective homes on the market and move in together down the Cape. “They said, ‘We’re leaving the city. We’re never coming back. This is too much,’” says Gilardi, executive broker for the Gilardi Group with Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty. It was a no-brainer: On the salty shores of Massachusetts, they’d have a heck of a lot more room to spread out and work from home. The charms of summertime on Cape Cod seemed to seal the deal—they told Gilardi they were hoping to buy a bigger house down there and ditch city life for good. That is, until they surprised the agent by calling to say they’d spontaneously put in an offer on a North End penthouse without her.

So what happened to a life of leisure on the beach? The couple got cold feet at the thought of spending winters shoveling snow off a crushed-seashell driveway. News of the impending vaccine, meanwhile, underscored the fact that Boston was really where they wanted to be. “The reality of what they were doing sort of dawned on them when…the light at the end of the tunnel started to come,” Gilardi explains.

Her clients aren’t the only ones having second thoughts about moving away from Boston. “I have clients who…miss the city and want to come back,” says Compass senior vice president Eric Tam, who notes he’s working with several people who have been renting in the suburbs but are returning and plan to buy in the city this year.

That kind of backpedaling is hardly a shock to Rachel Kalvert, a psychoanalyst based in the Back Bay. She says when humans are faced with an anxiety-producing situation, the fight-or-flight response kicks in. In this case, some people who fled cities during the pandemic were quite literally following their flight response, moving out of fear rather than a desire to settle in the suburbs or beyond in the future.
“People who really were anxious about COVID and wanting to make sure that they had space moved out of the city—and that was their biggest priority,” she says. “But then priorities shift, of course, once you get out there. And so what do you do when your priorities are no longer applicable?” The regret sets in, and you realize the house with a fence and a big backyard that needs mowing wasn’t the best choice after all.

Most people, of course, don’t regret their COVID-era impulse buy. Living with her husband, toddler, two German shepherds, and cat in a two-bedroom Roslindale apartment, Lucy Bullock-Sieger always planned to buy a house in Hyde Park one day, so she could still commute downtown. But a desire for extra square footage during the pandemic landed her family in Norfolk, more than 30 miles from her favorite farmer’s market and the neighbors she’d grown so close to. “We went for a little bigger house with more space, and it just felt better,” Bullock-Sieger says. She and her husband aren’t looking back anytime soon, either. They love living on a dead-end street filled with friendly faces, and the things her family likes to do—hiking, cross-country skiing, gardening, going to farms—are closer to her now. “I feel like we’re not missing out on anything,” she adds. “I’d lived in Boston for 15 years, so I feel like we did our time.”

It’s a good thing, then, that there are plenty of new city buyers ready to take her place.

Pangs of vaccine-era regret aren’t the only reason buyers have been zeroing in on Boston lately. For some, the motivation has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally nab a piece of what has typically been one very expensive pie. Joshua Stephens, vice president at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Warren Residential, says the drop in condo prices in neighborhoods across Boston has allowed millennials to transition from renting to buying, and empty-nesters who’ve already flown the coop to upsize within the city. “Some of my clients have been increasing their footprint in Boston,” Stephens says. Of course, the trend won’t last forever: “We expect that the pendulum will swing back in the near future,” he says.

It’s the moment before that pendulum lurches that’s key. “There are opportunities available in the city that haven’t been available in years,” Bull says. Just look at the spring market in 2019: If you were an entry-level buyer seeking to purchase your first home, you’d be hard-pressed to find something reasonably priced amid cutthroat competition. These days, though, sellers are getting more flexible with prices and terms as their once-unwavering trust in the city market falters. “That’s appealing for people who have been wanting to buy in the city for a couple years and haven’t been able to pull the trigger because they haven’t felt like they’re coming at the market from a position of strength,” Bull says.

This sea change has led to unexpected moves for some buyers. Seth Robert and Deirdre Pomerleau left Boston to buy a one-bedroom condo in Salem a few years ago, but when COVID hit, they decided they wanted a project—and more space. After having seven offers rejected on the North Shore, the two set their sights on the city, and in January closed on their Boston investment, a multifamily in Charlestown. They’re still in a state of disbelief about their purchase. “We didn’t think for a long time that Charlestown was within reach,” Pomerleau says.

Fueled by the dip in prices and interest rates, first-time homebuyers have also been finding increased opportunities to break into the Boston market. Initially worried about taking a huge risk without feeling comfortable financially, Charlene Luma, a lifelong Bostonian, decided to seize the opportunity to finally buy a home last year. “When I learned how significantly low the rates were, I was like, ‘Listen, you’ve got to be really smart to jump on this now,’” she says. Luma briefly considered places such as Quincy and Milton, but in the end decided to stay within city limits, settling on a home in Hyde Park. “I’m just really connected to this community, and I just didn’t see myself leaving the city,” she says. “And also because as a person of color, there’s just more to do and you’re more connected to people in the city than living in the suburbs.”

Similarly, first-time buyer Jacqueline Coston, who grew up in Boston, viewed listings in Norwood and Randolph, but ultimately traded her Allston-Brighton apartment for a Dorchester two-family in June. She’d been socking money away to buy before the pandemic began, and low interest rates coupled with help from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s ONE Mortgage Program, which allows for down payments as low as 3 percent, enabled her to start putting in offers. “This program was phenomenal for someone like myself because it allowed me to stay in the city,” Coston says.

Luxury buyers are seeing golden opportunities, too. Brian Dougherty, managing director of Compass’s Boston office, says he’s currently working with a couple of downtown shoppers who are sniffing out a “COVID discount.” One of them, a finance executive, told him that “as an investor, he takes note when everyone is running away from something. That’s when he runs to it.” The buyer, who thinks his family will enjoy city life once the pandemic is under control, sold his home in the suburbs over the summer for a huge markup, and is renting while he zeroes in on the perfect Boston opportunity—ideally a place between $4 million and $5 million.

Rentals are the other COVID jackpot for those on the hunt for city housing. The average cost for an apartment in Boston plummeted more than 20 percent from March to December, according to the rental site Apartment List, opening up options that people might not have imagined before. Students such as Sheeta Verma, who was attending business school in Boston when the pandemic struck, moved back in with her family in California over spring break, resolving to continue her East Coast life remotely. But this past January, her eyes widened at the city’s unheard-of rental discounts, so she decided to fly back. While she’d envisioned renting a room in Somerville or Cambridge last year, she was able to secure a place in Boston proper. “They are covering two to three months off the rent, which makes it a lot more affordable to get an apartment in the city,” Verma says.

Renters and buyers alike seem to share this feeling of incredulity. Lawrence and Aberle, the New Hampshire exiles, were recently able to nab a two-bedroom condo within walking distance to Kendall Square for under $500,000—something they never thought they’d be able to do. “I didn’t expect we would be able to live there. I would have assumed Somerville or Medford or maybe Roslindale,” Lawrence says. Granted, the place needs some work, especially the outdated kitchen, but the two were more than happy to replace a life of solitude in the hinterlands with a little elbow grease.

As the couple settle into their new home, the question of when they’ll be able to return to the best parts of urban life remains. “I’m pretty confident, whether it’s by early summer or late summer, we’ll be coming back into something sort of resembling what we left behind,” Lawrence says. Aberle, for her part, likens the move back to a leap of faith. Nobody knows what will happen in the next year, she says, but she’s confident her love for Boston and Cambridge will endure. “No matter what happens,” she says, “it’s where we want to be.”

Additional reporting by Sofia Rivera.

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