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Globe Magazine

How the pandemic is changing what Boston-area home buyers want

After spending months in quarantine, almost every buyer is chasing the same basic criteria.

Adobe Stock images/Globe staff photo illustration

Even as a deadly virus ground everyday life to a near halt during the past six months, causing tens of millions of Americans to be laid off or furloughed, people were still out house hunting and buying homes.

Fewer than usual, to be sure — but that’s partly because there were so few homes for sale. The number of new listings in the state plunged by more than 50 percent in April compared with 2019, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, as nervous sellers postponed their plans. In May, single-family home sales were down 30 percent from a year earlier, and condo sales had dropped even further. But then something surprising happened. With so few homes on the market and with mortgage rates at record lows, home buyers bid up prices in a heat wave of summer activity, masks and all. At the end of July, year-to-date median sale prices were up more than 6 percent statewide for both single-families and condos. In many parts of Greater Boston, homes were flying off the market.

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What’s driving home buyers during a global pandemic that has scuttled countless plans, transformed homes into offices and makeshift schools, and reshaped virtually every part of our lives? We spoke to realtors and new homeowners around Greater Boston to find out what buyers want right now.

A home office, if not two of them, is now a must-have feature, realtors say. So is a home gym. “People now need space for their Peloton and their desk,” says Eain Williams, a realtor with Compass in Boston.

Meanwhile, backyard features such as patios, fire pits, outdoor kitchens, gardens, pools, and screened-in porches have all gained more appeal, says Michelle Oates, a realtor with Coldwell Banker in Andover.

“Pools have become a really hot commodity,” agrees Christine Powers, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Cohasset. “That was never the case before — it was always kind of 50/50.” Powers adds that open layouts are starting to give way to more defined spaces where parents and kids alike can focus without distraction, and high-end kitchens are more popular than ever, with so many people eating most meals at home.

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When it comes right down to it, after spending the spring in quarantine, almost every buyer is chasing the same basic criteria right now, says Kiernan Middleman, a realtor with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Warren Residential in Boston: “More space, a home office — or two — and outdoor space.”

Ashley Clark, her husband, and their four children had been living in their cozy Quincy home for 11 years when the pandemic struck. They had been dreaming of buying a bigger house, even before the walls seemed to close in from all the homeschooling and telecommuting. But even though COVID-19 didn’t spark the idea, Clark says the prospect of extended social distancing certainly provided some extra motivation. “After being in just under 1,300 square feet during quarantine with six people and two dogs, we needed more indoor and outdoor space,” she says.

With a limited budget, they struggled to find that extra square footage in Quincy. And the social isolation of the pandemic made Clark, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, realize how much she missed her family. “When COVID hit, we didn’t know if and when we would see family again,” Clark says. “That was a scary thought, with older parents and even older grandparents.”

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Clark’s husband found a teaching job in the Philadelphia area, and in August, the Clarks closed on a five-bedroom 19th-century farmhouse outside of Philadelphia — where they found everything on their wish list at a manageable price. Clark says they miss the Boston area, but cherish the additional living space, the bigger yard — and the company of extended family. “We see them most days, and that is a huge blessing.”

While most buyers aren’t ready to move quite so far for extra space, Middleman says people are now much more willing to sacrifice proximity to Boston. “With so many companies going remote for the foreseeable future, commute time is no longer a factor — what was once a ubiquitous top-two criteria no longer even makes the list,” Middleman says. “We’re even seeing young families moving to towns they have literally never heard of.”

That’s in line with national and some regional data. “Homes in rural and suburban areas are selling much, much faster than before,” says Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at national brokerage Redfin. Prices are also rising more in these areas than in urban settings. The National Association of Home Builders, for its part, saw a suburban shift in new residential construction during the second quarter.

Economists at Zillow are less convinced that an urban exodus is afoot, noting that home prices continue to rise in urban cores (except in Manhattan and San Francisco), just not as quickly. But Fairweather says even before the pandemic, buyers were starting to prioritize larger homes over shorter commutes, and a recent Redfin study found larger homes outselling smaller ones. “The pandemic has accelerated the trend and kind of cemented it as being here to stay,” Fairweather says.

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Realtors such as Williams are seeing this happen firsthand. "I have a lot of clients who’ve kind of stretched their imagination when it comes to ‘where,’ " he says. “I have clients with twins in Dorchester; they’re moving down to Norfolk to get the extra bedrooms.”

Even younger singles and couples who rent in or near Boston are looking to buy a house in the suburbs, says Oates — perhaps a few years earlier than they would have otherwise. “Paying high rent for a small space, in a location where they no longer benefit from being close to work or night life, has lost its appeal,” she says. Meanwhile, Middleman says condos in large associations are now a harder sell, as buyers shy away from the potential for crowded elevators and shared amenity spaces.

Alexander Jean-Baptiste, in-house realtor for the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, has also seen increased interest in single-family homes, and more condo owners looking to sell — listings are up 32 percent year over year. However, he says, condo prices aren’t exactly cratering: “Boston is Boston, so there are still buyers for those condos.” According to the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, the median price of a Boston-area single-family has increased 5.2 percent this year, to $660,000, while condo prices have risen by a more modest 2.8 percent, to $591,263.

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While these are strange times, some buyer preferences have plenty of precedent. As in recent years, “Most buyers are looking for turnkey, recently updated homes,” Oates says. They still like to see open floor plans, hardwood floors, and roomy kitchens with stone counters and white or light-colored cabinets, she says.

While millennials are known to favor low-maintenance, move-in ready homes, Oates adds, they’re not alone. Both younger buyers and their downsizing parents tend to be put off by the idea of big renovations or hours of weekly yardwork, instead preferring more manageable backyards. And Capes and ranches with first-floor bedrooms continue to be popular at all age ranges, she says. “When an updated, expanded ranch hits the market in any town, there’s inevitably going to be a bidding war,” she says. “Both generations are looking and competing for the same home.”

Oates says fenced yards are also increasingly coveted by both groups — and not just for family cookouts. “More than ever, dogs are treated as family members, and their needs are quite high on the priority list,” she says. Dog owners (and there are lots of them) want pet doors, enclosed or easily fenced yards, neighborhoods with sidewalks, and mudrooms for cleaning off pets.

And despite the rise in telecommuting, Jean-Baptiste says proximity to public transit remains critically important to his buyers. Still, he echoes, their biggest concern right now is space. “That doesn’t just mean the living area or the square footage — it also means space between their property and somebody else,” Jean-Baptiste says.

When the coronavirus hit, Chris Shepard and Alma Lafler were living with Lafler’s parents, sharing the tight quarters of a two-bedroom Cambridge condo. The couple had started touring homes a few months earlier, and while the pandemic bogged down their search a bit, it didn’t change their priorities much. As first-time home buyers, they were looking for a condo that didn’t need a lot of work, ideally with some outdoor space. “We didn’t want to take on a project,” Lafler says. Still, they tried to keep open minds and stay flexible, “because the housing market here is crazy, and things are expensive,” she says.

Living with her parents gave the couple a chance to save some money, for which they were grateful. It also made a must-have home feature very clear. “We really saw the value of having that second half bath or full bath available,” Shepard says. And telecommuting or not, the couple wanted to be near a T station, because they were buying for the long term, he says. “Assuming that COVID will hopefully go away sometime soon, location was still something that we weren’t willing to compromise too much on.”

After losing out on a few offers, the couple landed a two-bedroom, two-bath condo in a Davis Square three-family, complete with a shared yard and a pair of private porches. Shepard says the porches make a huge difference as he works from home. “Having that outdoor space and being able to go on the back deck to have your morning coffee or to take some calls has been really, really important,” he says.

In tandem with a home office, Jean-Baptiste says, people are craving such bonus spaces — areas that are separated from the normal flow of the home. “It could be the all-season porch, or it could be a very well finished basement,” he says. People used to come home from work and unwind on the couch, he says, and now need a distinct area to disconnect.

And while suburban homeowners take it for granted, off-street parking remains a coveted perk for buyers in the city, Jean-Baptiste says. At the very least, they want to see plenty of street parking when they pull up for an open house. “If there’s no parking, you’ve already hit strike one,” he says.

Jocelyn Gould and her husband can relate. They owned their house in East Boston for over a decade, but they really, really wanted a driveway. They also wanted to be out of the floodplain, while being near enough to a T station to remain a one-car family. “We also wanted to have a little bit of space so we could both work from home without using the kitchen table,” Gould says.

But with so few homes for sale, Gould says even amid a pandemic, the market was still frustratingly competitive. “People were agreeing to not do home inspections on houses that obviously needed them, or buying really rundown houses for an incredible amount of money,” she says. After losing out on several homes, their patience paid off, and at the end of July the couple closed on a house near the Orange Line in Malden. It needs some updating and painting, Gould says, but they didn’t have to sacrifice on much else.

All that said, the home search doesn’t always come down to open kitchens, finished basements, or stone counters. “A lot of times it’s affordability and location. I mean, you can’t ignore that,” Jean-Baptiste says. And the historic lack of inventory means many people can’t even find, let alone afford, everything on their wish list right now — if they can think about buying at all, given the economic turmoil COVID-19 has wreaked. Some clients had hoped for a window of affordability, but soon gave up. “As many people as I’ve helped buy a home, there’s a large number of people I wasn’t able to help, because they were completely eliminated from the market.”

Despite the pulse-quickening nature of competing against multiple bidders, Shepard and Lafler held fast to their budget throughout their home search, knowing the economy was on shaky footing. They’re grateful they did; a couple of months after closing on their Somerville condo, Lafler learned that she was being laid off. “We’re both very glad that we were really cautious about what we wanted to spend, and that it was something we could afford,” she says. As their cat lazes happily in a sunny windowsill, Lafler says, “We were really lucky.”


Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.