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Buyers Say Bye-Bye to the City: Are the Suburbs Ready for a Massive Makeover? By Realtor.com

Young couple with moving truck
Erin Culton

As a wave of urban transplants heads for America’s suburbs and small towns, those areas could find themselves undergoing a dramatic makeover.

The coronavirus pandemic has driven many well-off residents out of the cities, with their overpriced and cramped apartments, and toward less populated areas where they can find more space for less money. People leave cities for the suburbs all the time, but this year’s circumstances are forcing even die-hard urbanites to give up on city living. And many are going to want to re-create some aspects of the cities they left behind in their new hometowns.

President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden battled for the suburban vote in this election cycle. But while those communities were once synonymous with white flight, they have become increasingly diverse in recent years as more immigrants and millennials have moved in. The latest wave of buyers—mostly older millennials, including families, and Gen X couples—is likely to accelerate the pace of change in the suburbs.

“People are already voting with their feet and with their dollars,” says Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. The nonprofit group researches real estate and land use issues. “The drive-everywhere-for-everything suburb is not going to do as well as those that are walkable and have invested in quality of life, cultural, and recreational amenities. Young people, in particular, want suburbs that give them the best aspects of cities, that have access to parks.”

How will urban transplants change the suburbs?

To the extent that these new residents can’t find their beloved urban amenities in the vicinity of their big house with a yard, they’re going to want to create them. They’ll become involved in local community groups, boards, and planning commissions. They’ll encourage the kinds of businesses they like to open up, and they’ll support the kinds of community initiatives that will create the amenities they want.

“The suburbs are going to change,” says McMahon. “You’re going to see more parks and green space in the suburbs, because people are more interested in running and health-inducing activities. … You’re going to see a lot more housing choices.”

Over the past few years, he’s seen dull office parks reimagined as shared workspaces—with housing, dining, and entertainment in the same complex. Zoning changes could allow more housing to go up in the town’s retail and dining centers. Popular businesses, like food halls and bars offering pingpong tables and video games, could move in.

Experts expect different kinds of housing to rise to meet the growing demand. That could add more affordable options, such as townhouses, duplexes, and condo buildings to towns made up of seas of single-family houses with crisp, green lawns.

“Suburbs in the past had no center, had no edge. You didn’t know where the city ended and the countryside began,” says McMahon.

Forward-thinking suburban communities are building city centers, he adds. “They’re trying to create a sense of place.”

Which suburbs will do the best—and the worst?

The towns that become popular destinations for new residents will likely see higher home values, more tax dollars, and as a result, stronger local economies.

Before the pandemic, urbanites leaving the cities sought out walkable towns with smaller homes, shorter commutes, and lots of places to eat and drink, says Alison Bernstein, founder and president of the Suburban Jungle, which offers advice to people seeking a move to the suburbs.

Today, folks also want to feel like they’re on vacation once they switch off their work computer in their home office. That means having things like public golf courses, hiking and cycling trails, or beaches nearby, Bernstein says.

“A lot of people are going fully remote,” says Bernstein, describing their mindset as “if I can live anywhere, I can get a new-construction house for a quarter of what I’m paying—and I can get a better tax situation.”

She’s seeing many younger families move from the East Coast to Florida, with its lower taxes and cost of living. They’re seeking out towns like Boca Raton and Parkland, as well as homes in Denver and Austin, TX.

These younger, urban buyers care more about the areas they are moving into, and the lifestyle they offer, than the homes they’re purchasing.

“The character of the neighborhood is more important than whether you have granite countertops,” says the Urban Land Institute’s McMahon.

The most successful towns will have unique identities and be adept at leveraging their selling points, such as green space, walkability, and farmers markets, says Brett Schwartz. He is the associate director of the National Association of Development Organizations Research Foundation, an umbrella group of suburban and small-town regional planning commissions.

They’ll also need friendly residents and stable broadband infrastructure, he says. It will be hard to attract professionals working remotely and new business owners to more rural areas with dial-up internet connections and spotty cellphone signals.

“The small towns and suburban communities that are welcoming … are the communities that are going to be able to thrive,” says Schwartz.

The downsides could be overburdened infrastructure, such as more traffic and congested schools. And while rising home prices will be good for homeowners, locals trying to buy their first home could have a tough time.

Will city slickers stay in the burbs—or return to the big cities?

Once there’s a cure for COVID-19, businesses reopen fully, and white-collar professionals feel safe returning to their offices, at least some of these newly minted suburbanites will likely move back to the cities they loved. But the majority are likely to stay right where they are. After all, selling a home after just a couple of years means risking a loss.

“The longer it takes for the world to go back to normal, the more people will stay where they’ve migrated to,” says realtor.com® Chief Economist Danielle Hale. “But I don’t think they’ll necessarily keep everyone.”

Plus, they’re likely to have begun putting roots down in their new communities, says Jason Hickey, president of Hickey & Associates. The New York City–based business helps companies determine where to expand and if they should relocate.

“They would have made the purchase of their home and enrolled their children into the school system,” he says.

However, some of this will hinge on employers. Even workers required to go back to their offices may not have to commute very far. Many companies are looking into opening smaller, satellite offices in the suburbs where their workers are based, says Hickey.

“Right now many people are 100% remote or very close to 100% remote,” says Hale. “If that changes in the future, more people will want to go back to the city and try to minimize their commute.”

The future of local businesses could also affect the trajectory of residents. If restaurants and bars are forced to close because they can’t make ends meet during the pandemic, that will make these communities less desirable.

“People would be less likely to stay if an area loses a lot of things that brought people in in the first place, like local businesses,” says Hale.

Clare Trapasso is the deputy news editor of realtor.com. She previously wrote for a Financial Times publication, the New York Daily News, and the Associated Press. She also taught journalism courses at several New York City colleges and obtained a real estate license. Contact her at clare.trapasso@realtor.com. Follow @claretrap