Whether you’re buying as an investor or a newly remote family moving to small towns, remember the people who were here before you came
On a recent weekend, I woke up early. I didn’t have to, but I was freshly vaccinated and doing something I’d looked forward to throughout the pandemic: drinking coffee, with my laptop, in an actual coffeeshop! I dusted off my backpack and packed all my things, glorying in using all the little gadget pockets. I didn’t even bring my headphones, because I was so excited about actual ambient coffeeshop noise instead of the artificial crap I’d found on YouTube and relied on for 52 weeks straight.
I found a stool in a corner while I waited on an oatmilk latte I didn’t make myself, taking special notice of the hanging plants and exposed brick walls and edison bulbs, and then I breathed in the smell of roasting and the sound of grinding and the general hipster atmosphere and opened my laptop.
And then I realized that everyone in the room — all thirteen people in the narrow space — were talking to each other about the magical discovery that they were all recent transplants to this tiny mountain town I called home. They were oohing and aahing over how moving here saved them half of what they were paying in New York or LA or Chicago, gushing about the sunsets and the little shops and the streets.
And instead of a peaceful writing session, I found I couldn’t control whether to cry or laugh with the rage I felt.
That day in the coffeeshop, as I gulped my too-hot latte so I could leave faster, I decided not to stand up and shout at them. But if I had, here is what I would say:
Congratulations on your new home.
Your purchasing decision has helped eliminate entire local generations from ever having a hope of purchasing a home or a piece of land in a place they loved for decades.
Even when you aren’t a loaded real estate investor or an REIT, even when you are just a family that has gone fully remote and wants more space and a yard for your kids than you could have in a city — did you ever think about what your $400K purchasing power would do to a town where the median income is $27,000?
Investors, did you know that eventually you will literally run out of renters and houses if you keep grabbing up everything in sight before regular folks even see the listing?
Did you think at all about what an all-cash offer, or a bidding war, or a 20% down payment does to the housing market where you’re moving?
I ran an early draft of this article by my writing group and it did succeed in lessening my rage, a little. One woman, from California, commented that she had no idea how much impact those moving to rural and suburban areas were having on the housing market. She was just trying to survive on her entry-level salary and knew she might finally be able to pay off her student loan if she moved out of the city.
Another, who recently moved from London to the suburbs, reminded me that he, too, was #generationrent and just wanted a home to raise his kids in that he could never afford in the city. (We all agreed on the complete nonsense of getting permission slips to hang things from actual nails in your walls, at least.)
Don’t get me wrong. I can’t blame anyone in that coffee shop or that writing group for their decision. Of course they want to be here — I watch them all the time on the balcony of the Airbnb apartment next to mine, big-city folks coming to town and walking out with a cup of coffee in the morning to the prettiest sunrises in North America.
Of course, they want these blue mountains, this rolling fog, this pastel rainbow of clouds every morning and night. Of course, they want to be washed by this cool air when they step outside and leave their windows open to hear the rain on the leaves.
Where I live, in Western North Carolina, we’ve always been a tourist destination and a second-home destination. People come the first time for the trails and the rivers and the beer and the little main street towns. They come back to stay because we’re close to major cities, have very few zoning regulations, and our land and our labor are cheap.
But those people who came here all those years? They were transient — weekend visitors, summer stays — and now they’re not. Now they’re buying houses with all-cash offers and driving prices up because our homes are so much cheaper than the places they’re moving from — Silicon Valley, New York, Florida.
With the past year’s trend of people moving away from cities and bringing their remote jobs with them, housing demand in suburban and rural places has skyrocketed.
This is good, if you already own a house in these places.
This is bad, if you aren’t that lucky, which means you happen to be part of over half of Black households, over half of Hispanic households, over 70% of single-parent households, or over 60% of rural Americans under 50.
This is bad, if you aren’t a landlord or an investor killing the economy with artificially inflated housing costs that are made worse by the price of land, zoning regulations, and material shortages.
We know it’s damn near a bubble even if we aren’t calling it that yet. Builders are 16 months behind, and there’s no housing supply left. There are more realtors than homes in the US! scream the headlines, with mixed messages about whether us millennials are breaking the housing market or finally growing up, or some weird combination of both.
Governments and investors are playing catchup and no one seems to know whether it’s a bubble or a long-term trend. In the meantime, out-of-state investors are buying houses, sight unseen, at an average of 18% higher than ever before, on timelines that would make your mama cry here in the South — 24 hours on market in Austin, 36 hours in Raleigh, 26 hours in Chattanooga.
And this time it’s not just in the big cities, where you could expect a higher cost of living that better matched your salary. This time it’s everywhere. It’s in rural places and small and mid-sized cities that have long been the only dream of rural people. It’s driving up costs sometimes two or three times in less than a year.
Last weekend, I couldn’t stand up and say anything without screaming, so I didn’t say a word.
But I’m asking all of you families and regular people and entry-level tech folks, who maybe are putting a little money into an REIT or deciding to move to suburbia or looking for that perfect small city or tiny town, to step back for just a moment to be aware of the economic impact of your own decisions.
We know the investors won’t stop, because they never do. Yet we can. All of us real humans can consider each other, can step back from the endless capitalist cycle of neverending growth and investment to be conscious of the communities we are impacting with what is often the biggest purchase we’ll ever make.
Be aware. Pay attention. And if you do move, or invest, in places like these — at least try, when you get there, to appreciate them as they are, to support the communities that are already there, rather than pushing to change them.
*Photo by author