Location is, and has always been, everything in real estate. The truism that where a property sits must be its most important characteristic remains undisputed. But what is location, really? What does it mean to homebuyers, and what are the consequences when changes come?
The truth is, street layouts, public transportation systems, commuting routes, open space, walking paths, restaurants or shopping, parks, schools and scenic views are malleable both in how they are valued and how they come to be. While location might seem like a relatively static feature when talking about properties, shifting priorities from policymakers as well as evolving consumer preferences can quickly cool off a hot neighborhood or revitalize a lagging market.
Both these processes are happening all the time, but the current shift is maybe more dramatic and moving more rapidly than at any time in recent memory as Americans completely reevaluate exactly where they want to live—and why.
Dr. Sam Chandan is a professor at NYU and Academic Dean of the school’s Schack Institute of Real Estate. He says a multitude of changes are manifesting now that could impact both city planning and real estate for decades to come.
“Millennials are not necessarily looking for something that looks like Levittown,” says Chandan, referring to the hyper-planned suburban Long Island community that is often cited as a model of postwar housing philosophy. “It’s not sort of a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ scenario.”
With people born in the 1980s and 1990s becoming the largest segment of homebuyers, understanding that demographic’s needs and preferences is a holy grail for real estate professionals. But how is that information guiding the growth of towns and cities, and what does it mean for the housing market?
Chandan says that like most things real-estate related, the answers are always going to be local. But as the temporary supply constraints currently preventing the housing market from reaching its full potential fade, Chandan predicts that areas that allow higher densities through zoning reforms and follow a more centralized, community-oriented plan of development will be best positioned to capitalize and grow.
“We’re talking about wanting to be in easy reach of a set of cultural and social amenities, and I think that is quite different from what we would have seen as the profile of a comparably-aged young family 30 years ago,” he says.
Waiting on the World to Change
Manhattan Beach nestles in the southwest corner of Los Angeles. The median sale price for a home exceeds $2 million, according to U.S. census data, with a mostly white and Asian population in a county that is almost 45% Hispanic. Most residential areas are composed of close-set, adobe-roofed single-family constructions on narrow streets, bisected with a commercial thoroughfare that feeds into the city’s bustling beach-adjacent downtown—a spread of health food stores, cafes and boutique retail shopping pressed right up against the water.
Kristi Ramirez-Knowles is a team leader for Your Home Sold Guaranteed Realty and a long-time Manhattan Beach resident, though she works in many of the surrounding southwest LA cities. In an area that is historically resistant to change, COVID has potentially provided a kick-start for generational changes in living preferences.
“Now, post COVID—though we’re still in COVID—we still have a mix. We still have people that are willing to go almost anywhere,” she says. “ it’s a safe community.”
Woburn, Massachusetts is a sprawling suburb about 25 minutes outside of Boston. It can trace its European colonization back to the mid 1600s, and is now characterized by its rustic winding streets and big colonials with plenty of forested areas and parks filling the margins. The town offers a wider range of price points, from $150,000 ranch fixer-uppers to a handful of multi-million-dollar estates.
Eileen Dohtery is a ninth-generation resident of Woburn with 40 years of real estate experience, currently working for Lamacchia Realty. She says even as homebuyer preferences have evolved rapidly, change in policy and infrastructure often creeps up more gradually.
“[Current residents] are beside themselves because there’s so much development—if anything they’d like to restrict it and make it less per acre,” she says.
Dan Forsman is President & CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia Properties. Overseeing the Atlanta region, he says dozens of thriving suburbs—many of which were originally vacation or resort communities—have begun “revitalization” efforts to begin serving changing needs and desires of longer-term residents.
“Eclectic, farm to table restaurants—people are looking for that, access to that, and looking to where they can get that when they’re away from what I call ‘white noise,’” he says.
Though these three disparate regions will certainly evolve along different lines at a more granular level, Chandan says that broadly the narrative of mass migration to different states or cities is overblown. People—especially young people—are looking to live within or near traditional metros like New York or Boston, but specifically for towns that can offer them a specific index of amenities.
“What the data actually tells us is the dominant trend is greater dispersion in the metropolitan area,” he says. “They’re able to sort of optimize in a way that also accounts for all these other things that they care about.”
What’s My Age Again?
One of the most direct methods of addressing these needs is “upzoning” to allow for more density around what Chandan describes as the “quasi-urban core” of smaller towns and suburban cities. This has proved effective in combating land scarcity, affordability and transportation access, and often allows for developments of mid-rise condo complexes, townhomes or repurposed mixed-used construction that previously might have been disallowed or heavily regulated.
These changes are also becoming more politically viable in many places as a new generation arrives—a generation that is more comfortable with diversity and living close to others, according to Chandan.
In Woburn, this is only partly true, as Dohtery says she has observed some attitudes changing while others have not—starting with acceptance of racial diversity.
“In the older parts of the center…it was more mixed nationalities. The older people wouldn’t walk down there. Younger people are that much more liberal, they don’t care, they like it. That’s where you see changing,” she reflects.
In recent years there has been a big push to tear down old buildings in Woburn’s centuries-old central hub, putting up some multifamily living units and opening restaurants and retail stores. Doherty herself owns a multi-family home right in the city center, where her niece currently lives with some younger roommates.
“They absolutely love being there, they walk downtown—literally in their backyard—to a different restaurant every night,” she laughs.
At the other extreme, some neighborhoods in towns abutting Woburn can only be reached by unpaved, pothole-ridden streets—not because the town cannot afford to fix or pave them, but because people who live there have lobbied against it, according to Doherty. The idea, she says, is to discourage anyone who doesn’t live there from even driving past, keeping noise and nuisance to an absolute minimum.
“That’s old Yankee money,” Doherty says. “It keeps the people out of their neighborhood.”
Some of these folks are likely fighting a losing battle if they’re hoping to prevent development to that extreme (Doherty is currently involved with a 147-unit townhome development in Woburn). While resistance from locals can certainly slow down the evolution of a city, eventually both policymakers and developers are going to find ways to meet consumers with what they want.
One thing that is changing in Los Angeles is at least a partial removal of one of the biggest barriers there: commuting. In the past, Ramirez-Knowles says she would tell potential homebuyers to rent a hotel for a night near a neighborhood they were considering and see if they could endure the level traffic and smog on a day’s commute before deciding to live there.
But now with remote work, as well as a renewed emphasis on transportation and now-ubiquitous electric cars, Ramirez-Knowles says that areas that used to be defined by their freeway access and distance to business centers are trying to become self-sustaining.
“So many millennials are doing a lot of their jobs—-they can work from home,” she says. “They don’t want to get out and drive. It’s important for them to walk or if they have to drive, drive a very short distance.”
That is not to say that traffic does not matter anymore—commuters still end up driving as much as four hours a day to go a handful of miles cross-town, Ramirez-Knowles says. But areas that have more space, better views and nice schools are now options for many more families who do not have to worry about prohibitively lengthy drives.
Another offset of the millennial lifestyle and work-from-home opportunities that is influencing city layouts is loneliness. Starting with the pandemic isolation, Ramirez-Knowles says people began seeking out “community amenities” where they could at least encounter another friendly (even mask-wearing) face.
That has continued as people who work from home have limited excuses to just get outside, meet neighbors and learn about their town.
“They want to be able to go walk their dogs, walk with their kids, get outside and get vitamin D,” she says. “You’re not getting out very much…you need places to go walk, you need a walkway—a green belt, if you will—a park, a pier.”
In the Atlanta area, several towns are realizing that they can provide a lot more for their changing communities, according to Forsman. People who have second homes in the suburbs are spending more and more time away from the white noise of their working lives, he says, and are beginning to look for the same amenities in these areas as they have in their primary homes.
Though this trend is hardly analogous to what is happening in Woburn or Los Angeles, the effect is the same: cities are re-developing downtowns and shifting the kind of access and amenities they provide.
“They’ve had a face lift and an upgrade, because people aren’t going to malls the way they used to,” Forsman says.
This applies even to areas in the north that historically have been made up of mostly seasonal resort towns in the mountains. As flexible work allows residents to spend more time here, businesses move in to provide more grocery shopping, entertainment and year-round services, which in turn draws even more people to make those towns their permanent—or semi-permanent—homes.
Stop, Collaborate and Listen
There are many other barriers and unintended consequences stemming from the types of changes happening right now as well, he adds. Cities that are too successful with these tactics will quickly see the price of land and homes balloon, slowing real estate growth and creating more racial and economic segregation.
In places like Woburn, there is also the possibility of political backlash, and policymakers must balance the often-powerful backlash from residents and other stakeholders who fear loss of so-called community character or outsides.
Real estate professionals can make a big difference in these situations. Doherty says that as a longtime resident she is trusted by even the most stalwart Woburnites and can navigate the complicated landscape of local politics and land use laws, where trust and experience make all the difference.
Doherty speaks of being contacted by a local politician one time, who invited her to attend a campaign event emphasizing that she was maybe the most well-known public figure in the area.
“I said to him, ‘I have to go, I sold you your house!’” she laughs.
In Woburn, developments, zoning tweaks and infrastructure investments happen gradually, and becomes much easier with any local support, according to Doherty, with projects eeking through the approval process one by one.
On the other side of the country, Ramirez-Knowles says the overpricing and lack of homes has pushed people to settle in areas where the schools or neighborhoods maybe aren’t what they had originally hoped for. Developers are building brand new, more affordable condos inland in cities that haven’t historically been “family friendly” like Torrance and Gardena, and people are snatching them up, she says.
“I would say that’s attracting families even though the school district may not be that great. I think it’s the appeal of brand new and something they can afford,” she posits.
Many of these units are selling out before they are even framed, she adds, during the current inventory crunch. If cities approve the kind of housing units people are looking for— which Ramirez-Knowles describes as narrow, multi-floored condo communities with built-in recreation centers, pools and gyms—even more business investment and development often follows.
The result of all this movement and new development, of offering wider varieties of housing types and densities in different parts of a given city creates demographic diversity, according to Chandan. A place that can accommodate young and old, wealthy and lower income folks, families and retirees is much healthier for everyone, and especially for the real estate market. Though convincing some people of these benefits will be difficult—and sometimes impossible— Chandan argues that even those who prefer their “Leave it to Beaver” lifestyle will eventually benefit from this type of change.
“The person who is a young family right now in a two or three-bedroom rental unit in that quasi-urban core—in five years, that person is a potential buyer for your home,” Chandan says.
Jesse Williams is RISMedia’s associate online editor. Please email him your real estate news ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.