'Zoom towns': US remote workers are heading to smaller cities

·2-min read

A third of US office employees work entirely remotely and a further 25 percent do so from time to time, according to a recent analysis by Gallup. For many, this offers the chance to leave the big city behind for what are now being called "Zoom towns."

Bigger spaces, fresh air, no long commutes or traffic snarls: what might have seemed a distant dream suddenly became a reality when the Covid-19 pandemic obliged many office workers to switch to remote working. Confronted with the drawbacks of their daily lives, from cramped urban living spaces to hectic days, many US workers are now considering moving to small towns that until now were seen mainly as holiday destinations. 

Welcome to "Zoom towns." Forbes magazine recently cited some examples of locations seeing an uptick in interest this year: Lewisburg, Tennessee, Aspen, Colorado, and Kingston and the Hamptons in New York state.

Not every small town is a "Zoom town," however. The neologism refers to communities in close proximity to nature, like a water body, a ski resort, a national park or other scenic natural features, and which are usually seen as vacation spots.

Online real estate agent Zillow estimates that around 2 million renters, whose jobs allow for remote working, could soon be looking to buy homes in these locations. 

And this figure doesn't necessarily refer only to older people. According to Zillow, millennials -- the generation born between the beginning of the 1980s and the middle of the 1990s -- represent a large proportion of potential future buyers, with an average age of 38.

This migration towards greener pastures is unsurprisingly having an effect on real estate prices. According to figures published by Bloomberg, property prices have risen by around around 25% in just one year in the Hamptons, which until now were chiefly seen a summer vacation destination for New Yorkers. In Sierra Nevada, the Lake Tahoe region is seeing a boom of 50% in real estate prices relative to last spring.

In general, it's prices in rural areas that have risen, rather than those in cities. According to US broker Redfin, at the end of August, the prices of real estate in the US had risen by 11.3% since last year in the countryside, while the rise was a mere 6.2% in urban zones, and 9.2% in suburban areas.

Research published in the Journal of the American Planning Association suggests that these "gateway communities" -- a term that refers to urban locations close to natural resorts, wilderness areas or other tourist attractions -- were already seeing interest from city-dwellers tired of the pace of urban life, prohibitive property prices, traffic jams and overcrowded public transport systems before the pandemic hit. Covid-19 has only boosted this phenomenon.

Given the current situation, it's likely that house prices in these "Zoom towns" will continue to climb in the next year or two.