A Buyer's Guide to the Suburbs

Are Exurbs the New Suburbs in Washington?

Why moving way out is way in, and other real estate trends to watch in 2021.

By Benjamin Cassidy March 15, 2021

The Hightower family needed more room than Seattle could provide.

Early on in their relationship, Brandi and Amy Hightower belonged to an LGBTQ group at their church in Wenatchee. “There weren’t very many of us,” Brandi says. When Amy landed a construction gig in Seattle, the couple found a modern loft in South Park and a far more diverse community. They helped out at Pride events and visited Seattle Reproductive Medicine, which allowed them to visualize having kids. But when their first one arrived? “There wasn’t a single door in that loft to shut,” Amy recalls. “Thinking about a baby crying, we were like, ‘Yikes! We gotta move.’”

So began a quest to find more space that brought them to Kent, Quincy, and, ultimately, back to a swath of Central Washington known for abundant orchards—it’s the “Apple Capital of the World”—and equally abundant recreation options. Everything from skiing to archery is at the Hightowers’ doorstep in Wenatchee. The couple clocks in from a coworking space downtown when not tending to their young children, Dakota and Canyon. They’ve appreciated the slower pace of life after their Seattle stint, says Amy. “I won’t move back that way.”

Their return to Wenatchee preceded a flurry of moves to the area in 2020. Chelan County, also home to Leavenworth, experienced some of the state’s largest hikes in real estate sales and prices in 2020. Counties to the north (Okanogan) and south (Kittitas) saw similar upticks as people sought more elbow room amid the coronavirus pandemic. “Beyond the Eastside, people are moving out to other areas,” says John Deely, executive vice president at Coldwell Banker Bain in Bellevue. “The resort areas, like Chelan, they’re seeing this unprecedented growth.”

Movement to the exurbs isn’t just a 2020 trend, says James Young, the director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research. Retirees had started to trade in pricey Seattle homes for bucolic retreats in recent years. But remote work’s rise broadened the profile of buyers in more yawning areas, he says. Those nearing retirement, as well as first-time home shoppers, could suddenly browse properties beyond the suburbs without worrying about attendant commuting crawls.

Still, office reopenings might yet reverse that trend, Young says. And distant home pursuits in less developed areas bring their own bidding wars. Cash offers, like in Seattle, conquer all others. “You’re just exporting that to the exurbs now,” he observes.

A related Seattle problem—gentrification—has also pushed more home-seekers to the exurbs. Nicole Bascomb-Green, the owner of Bascomb Real Estate Group in Kent, says many families can’t afford to live in south King County anymore. She’s had clients settle in northern Pierce County or even as far south as Olympia instead.

Bascomb-Green knows all too well about gentrification—she grew up in Seattle’s Central District. Her family was eventually displaced from the neighborhood. “My work is not just about buying and selling real estate,” says Bascomb-Green. She strives to offer homeownership advice “specifically for the Black community of which I’m a part.” There are no easy solutions to the supply and demand world of real estate, she knows. But more housing—and not of the high-end variety—would be one bit of progress she’d like to see in 2021 and beyond. “Having some more entry points to homeownership is very important,” she says, “and building homes in the region that are for first-time homebuyers, because we are not seeing that trend.”

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