What's Your Best Place? How to Decide Where to Live in a Pandemic-Changed World
The hardships of the pandemic are countless, but one positive to come out of the last 18 months may be the geographic freedom it’s afforded many. With the widespread adoption of remote work, not to mention career changes brought on by job loss, Americans are now less tied to a specific location than ever.
Want to leave the city and raise alpacas? Move closer to family? Swap your house for a life on the road? Anything’s possible.
Are you planning to use your newfound freedom to pick up and move — maybe to one of our 2021 Best Places to Live? Here’s how to choose the right spot.
What do you want life to look like?
There’s never been a better time to take stock of things and reassess your priorities.
Take Lisa Ann Pinkerton and her fiancé, Julien Adler, for example, who traded in their Silicon Valley apartment for an RV last September. They now operate a handful of businesses, including a PR firm and a cleantech nonprofit, out of their Winnebago Horizon while they (and their cats) tour the country.
“When the pandemic hit, we realized that if we have to shelter in place, we might as well do it in a variety of locations and make the country our living room,” Pinkerton says.
Greg Ray made a big life change, too. When he lost his job as a landscape architect early in the pandemic, he “made lemonade out of lemons,” he says, selling his Los Angeles home for more than double what he paid for it. The Rays then bought a lush, 2.5-acre avocado farm, achieving a dream many decades in the making.
Now, Ray, his wife, Kelly, and their youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, live in a newly-built home right on the farm and are happier than ever. “The best part is, we were able to show our kids that adversity is not always a bad thing,” he says.
According to agents, more buyers are making these types of changes, prioritizing quality of life. Some are buying for the recreational opportunities a place affords, while others are prioritizing culture or the weather — whatever’s most important to them. It’s an about-face from the days when proximity to work took clear precedence.
“Everybody before was like ‘I’ve got to live close to my job,’” says Andrea Ratliff, a real estate agent with Redfin in Carmel, Indiana — our No. 2 best place to live this year. “But if that’s no longer your focus, you can live close to what is most important to you.”
For many people, that’s family. Agents say they’ve seen a huge uptick in buyers moving closer to loved ones. Trenton Hogg, a Redfin agent in No. 1 Chanhassen, Minnesota, says there’s been a particular rise in what he calls “grandparent” moves.
“I have never had the word ‘grandparent’ or ‘grandkids’ come up as much as it does now,” Hogg says. “I’m getting a lot of grandparents and a lot of family moves.”
While some of this is just wanting to be near loved ones — especially during times of social distancing, Jason Mitchell, founder of the Jason Mitchell Real Estate Group in Scottsdale, Arizona (No. 9), says these family moves can be strategic, too. “If you have young kids, you can go live by your parents and have a baked-in babysitter,” he says.
Factoring in finances
Of course, your budget will play a role, too. For one, home prices vary widely across the country. Understanding a market’s unique price trends, as well as how they fit into your financial goals, is critical before making a big move.
In a place like Scottsdale, the median home price is just over $600,000. Over in Chanhassen? It’s $458,184 — nearly $150,000 less. The least expensive place on our list this year is Benton, Arkansas (No. 33)at $160,394.
“You can definitely buy more house in these communities a little bit further out from the main metro areas,” Hogg says. Chanhassen, where Hogg works, is about a 25-minute drive from Minneapolis.
Your salary should factor in as well. Sheila Smith, a real estate agent with RE/MAX in Boise, Idaho (No. 13) says her city has seen a big increase in buyers from San Francisco, where salaries (and costs of living) are much higher. Many of them continue to earn California-sized paychecks while remotely and are surprised by the homes they can afford if they move.
You’ll also want to think about the taxes. The Tax Foundation has a helpful map that breaks down average property tax rates by state but be warned: Taxes vary widely from one county to the next. You should ask a real estate agent or inquire with the county appraiser for the most accurate picture, including potential changes to how property taxes will be calculated in the future.
Another thing to note? Some states with high property taxes have low (or no) state income taxes, such as Texas. Talk to an accountant or financial advisor to learn about the tax situation in a particular area before you move.
Finally, consider the long-term desirability of a market. To ensure you make your investment back (and then some, hopefully), you’ll want to move somewhere where values will continue rising — and where demand will remain strong.
Todd Luong, an agent with RE/MAX DFW Associates in Frisco, Texas (No. 19) — says it comes down to one question: “How easy would it be to sell a home in this location once the world returns to normal?”
Think ahead to future COVID-19 waves
The pandemic is not in the rear-view just yet, so consider what future COVID-19 waves might look like in an area.
Kerron Stokes, an agent with RE/MAX Resource Group in Centennial, Colorado (No. 8), says to start by researching how the area responded to COVID in the past. What was closed? Were there mask mandates? Were schools open? What are local vaccination rates? How do those policies fit in with your goals, health and lifestyle?
You should also think about what life would be like if a lockdown occurred — things like the outdoor amenities you’d have access to, the space you’d enjoy and the activities you’d still be able to take part in. According to Stokes, Centennial saw an influx of people from the Northeast during the pandemic — largely due to its easy-access to state parks, mountains and trails.
“There’s a more recreational lifestyle and more outdoor space here,” Stokes says. “They want to be someplace that has weather that's favorable for them being outside if they were to enter into a quarantine period again.”
That same “quarantining” mindset should factor into the home you choose, too. It’s also why agents say outdoor entertaining areas, home offices and flex rooms — often useful for possible virtual schooling, are in particularly high demand these days.
Work still plays a role
Finally, don’t discount work altogether. If you’re working remotely, you’ll want to make sure the place you’re moving to has good internet and cell service — something agents say buyers are more interested in than ever.
You should also have a backup plan. There’s also the chance that things will change — or that your new adventure (or avocado farm) doesn’t pan out. You’ll want to make sure you’re not too far out from the office or, at least, a solid job market if something shifts.
“There’s a risk there,” Mitchell says. “If your employer says, ‘Hey, our culture is suffering. We’re going to make you come back to the office,’ having an hour commute certainly won’t be fun.”
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