Social distancing and work-from-home opportunities caused many urbanites to rethink their housing situation when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020. A late 2020 Harris poll showed that as many as 39% of city dwellers at least considered moving to a less-populated area due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Add in historically low interest rates and a generally cheaper price-per-square-foot, and suburban homeownership has never looked more attractive. So what do you need to know to buy a house in the suburbs?
In fact, while other industries have struggled this year, 88% of HomeLight real estate agents say bidding wars are on the rise in their area, describing the situation as “insanely competitive.”
The current buyer’s reality in the suburbs
At the end of 2020, the suburbs could definitely be classified as a seller’s market. Low inventory (another word for “number of homes for sale”) and a lot of highly motivated buyers make for higher home prices and heavier competition.
Take this analysis of HomeLight’s third quarter 2020 market insight report, for example:
As of this writing, 92% of agents say that it’s a seller’s market, marking a 67% increase year over year and a 16% increase from as recently as the previous quarter. Supply remains scarce; 87% of agents say inventory is lower than they expected it to be this quarter, and 96% report that low interest rates are simultaneously causing buyers to flood the market.
Specifically, USA Today named the suburbs of these cities some of the hottest real estate markets of 2020, as buyers push outward from city centers for pandemic-related reasons.
- Colorado Springs, Colorado
- Topeka, Kansas
- Columbus, Ohio
- Rochester, New York
- Raleigh, North Carolina
But don’t despair, buyers! Purchasing a great home in a seller’s market happens all the time.
As a buyer looking for a home in a competitive suburban landscape, you’ll just need to pinpoint your search to the right house and work alongside a top real estate agent to get your offer accepted.
Looking for the right house in the suburbs
Lots of homebuyers romanticize the process of house shopping. Housing dollars tend to stretch further in a suburban market, so it’s easy to fall into a “What can we afford?” mindset rather than a “What’s best for us?” perspective.
Instead of being wooed by dreams of a completely different suburban lifestyle, look for a house that aligns with more realistic expectations.
What do you need?
First, think through the amount of space that you need. What’s typical in the suburbs might not be right for you.
Do you actually need an acre of land, four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a three car garage? Or would a more modest size fit your lifestyle better? Remember that with additional space comes additional expenses, the need for more furniture, and increased home maintenance costs.
You’ll also want to think through what you need in a neighborhood. How close do you need to be to local conveniences like stores, restaurants, and a gym? Is there high-speed internet available for your home office needs? Are there certain community features that you can’t live without, such as specialized health care facilities or access to parks or off-leash dog areas?
Think through schooling needs, both now and in a post-virtual education environment. School zones are not as clear-cut in the suburbs as they are in the city. Research school zones carefully, and remember that even if a school is considered “good,” it may not be the best fit for your child.
Transportation needs should be taken into consideration, too. Will you have a car, or will you need to rely on public transportation within your town for a while? Look at car parking, bike routes, and access to air and rail stations, as needed for your lifestyle.
Consider the possible commute if you have to go back to work in the city. How long will it be, and can you handle the scenery on the way?
What do you want?
Buying a house goes well beyond basic practicalities. When you envision a move from the city to the suburbs, what do you want your life to look like?
“There are some fantastic things about moving to a rural area,” Boals says.
“You’re gonna have a lot more privacy, and you can have a lot more fun outside, both during the day and at night.”
Think through indoor features (do you always run out of counter space during holiday baking?), outdoor features (would your kids benefit from a yard with space for a playset or pool?), and community amenities (is gated security important for your peace of mind?).
But while you’re thinking through those desires, keep in mind that you and your family won’t become different people just by moving to the suburbs.
Will your middle schooler really want access to a basketball court when they prefer to spend most of their time reading? Will your takeout-king husband suddenly want to be a gourmet cook just because he now has a six-burner gas stove?
Filter your wants (and needs) by determining what kind of home and location would enhance the life you currently have rather than what the movies say your suburban life should look like.
What do you not want?
While you’re making a list of must-haves, make a list of must-not-haves to go along with it.
The things you don’t want are as personal as the things you do, but here are some things to think about for your “don’t want” list:
- Repairs: Do you want move-in ready, or are you willing to make some improvements? (Either way, be sure to get an inspection!)
- HOAs: Buyers have mixed feelings about homeowners associations’ costs versus their benefits. What are yours?
- Well and septic systems: Some people prefer to pay monthly for municipal water and sewer services rather than pay later to maintain personal well and septic systems.
- Limited infrastructure: The more “off-grid” you go, the more you give up amenities like city road services (including plowing and pothole repairs) and trash collection.
What aren’t you thinking about?
As you contemplate a move from the city to the suburbs, consider the effects of the following elements as well.
Taxes and insurance
For many, a mortgage in the suburbs costs less than rent payments in the city. But have you accounted for property taxes and homeowners insurance?
These costs vary widely throughout the country, but your real estate agent should be able to help you ballpark this very important expense.
When most theatres, sporting events, galleries, and clubs are closed during a pandemic, suburban life can look pretty attractive because city life isn’t the same when you’re sitting at home all the time. But will you miss access to city amenities when the pandemic is over?
If most of your friends live in the city, do you have a plan to maintain those relationships? Keep in mind that people tend to make friends differently in the suburbs.
Where regular spontaneous contact (“bumping into” people) can lead to lasting relationships in the city, that opportunity doesn’t exist as frequently in the suburbs because housing is more spread out and individualized.
However, Boals points out that more space means you can throw larger parties!
Making a competitive offer in the suburbs
In a seller’s market — especially one that may be unfamiliar to you — it’s important to trust your real estate agent. They’ve got their finger on the pulse of the local market and can help you make an offer that’s more likely to be accepted.
A recent HomeLight survey of over 1,100 real estate agents offered insight regarding some key strategies to make your offer rise to the top. A vast majority of respondents (87%) say that buyers are bidding above asking price to make their offer the most attractive.
Others reported that buyers are limiting concessions and contingencies, along with even writing personalized letters to the seller. Talk with your real estate agent about which of these strategies might be best in your situation.
HomeLight real estate agents expect the trend toward suburban homeownership to continue in 2021. In fact, 56% say they anticipate current inventory levels to either stay stable or decrease in the near future.
If moving from the city to the suburbs is a part of your short-term set of goals, be realistic about your search and savvy about your buying process in order to make a housing change that’s best for you.
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