suburbs

Ah, space.

Mere weeks into the boredom of quarantine, doom-scrollers inevitably happened upon a burgeoning and, just as quickly, banal type of real estate story. This USA Today headline was typical of the genre: “Get me out of here! Americans flee crowded cities amid COVID-19, consider permanent moves.”

These stories of urban exodus often leaned on anecdotes and the theoretical. Skeptics soon emerged, as did some inconvenient data for this nascent narrative: Zillow reported that metropolitan real estate markets had actually kept up with suburban ones. New York City and San Francisco, however, were notable exceptions, losing out to their surrounds.

So what’s happening in Seattle? Ask some area realtors, and they’ll tell you there’s significant flight from our city. “We are absolutely seeing that,” says Julie Meyers, designated broker at Bainbridge Homes Real Estate, of the Seattleites seeking island life in droves. Beyond her own experiences with Seattle buyers, Meyers cites the amount of Seattle-based agents selling homes on Bainbridge Island. Usually, it’s about 20 or 30 percent. Lately, it’s 50 or 60 percent, an indication that some city residents want out.

Ask others, though, and they’ll shake their heads. “I’m not seeing it,” says Heather Maddox, a Windermere broker based in Renton. She points to a “pause” in movement among families with school-aged kids.

But those perspectives, of course, are anecdotal. Which stance does data support? In the pandemic’s early months, real estate numbers backed Maddox’s view. For months, Seattle homeowners clung to their properties, and when houses hit the market, they quickly found deep-pocketed buyers. Northwest Multiple Listing Service’s most recent figures, posted last week, continue to reflect high demand amid Covid-19. Prices remained Needle-high, and pending and closed sales were up year-over-year in every area of Seattle. 

That doesn’t mean Seattleites have shunned the suburbs, though. NWMLS’s inventory doesn’t account for renters ditching their mid-rises for front lawns and more elbow room; the rental market here has slumped. Meanwhile, for all those expensive sales, Seattle’s home value growth during the early months of the pandemic trailed the property value increases in its surrounding towns and cities, per Zillow. In other words, the ’burbs have also seen pronounced price hikes (for instance, the median Bainbridge Island home sold for 43 percent more in September than it did a year prior). And here’s some deeper sleuthing: Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell found that forwarding address requests in Seattle rose between March and June compared to that same time period in 2019, suggesting that more people were moving out of Seattle during that time than real estate stats may have let on. 

So, there are certainly people leaving Seattle because of Covid-19, seeking more space for home offices and (sigh) schooling. At the same time, Seattle isn’t emptying out, which seems to spur the interest in these dying-cities stories.

A few less-conventional (and less-precise) measures than real estate figures highlight the city’s continued appeal. In July and August, Zillow searches for Seattle homes increased 46 percent year-over-year from IP addresses in Seattle, and users from outside the city browsed the city’s properties 53 percent more than a year prior, according to data from Zillow. (The rise in Seattle scrollers searching for homes outside the city was only 11 percent.) LinkedIn’s Economic Graph team used location changes on users’ profiles to track city-to-city migration. While Seattle had the steepest decline in net arrivals, just behind New York City and San Francisco, the Emerald City has still experienced an “overall influx of people,” unlike Boston and many other metropolises. And a Bloomberg report on long-distance moves through United Van Lines revealed that Seattle was the top destination for people deserting San Francisco between May and August.

Tech hub to tech hub shuttling should come as no surprise. It’s what we’ve seen here for the past decade-plus, as Seattle has grown faster than just about anywhere else. What we're ultimately experiencing, then, is not a dramatic departure from our real estate norms but a continuation. Our neighbors may leave from time to time, perhaps in greater numbers than before, but others will be quick to replace them.

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