Booming Zoom Towns

The ability to telecommute has enabled greater housing choices and the birth of zoom towns

By Julia Malisos

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”—eerily fitting for today.

The pandemic is on-going, but with our resilience, we charge forward in this uncertain time. Economic recoveries and housing forecasts continue, as does speculation on second COVID-19 waves and the post-pandemic world. Through all of this obscurity, the housing market has been strong with home prices and sales higher than expected.

Reflective of Charles Dicken’s legendary line is that of the K-shaped recovery, a current economic theory. The K represents two trajectories going in different directions, and potentially involving various meanings. The Fast Company explains the K as those at the top are seeing things go up, and those at the middle and below are seeing things go down and get worse. A K-shaped recovery occurs when an economy recuperates unevenly, and there’s a separate trajectory for two segments of the society. While the financial markets recover and grow, the real economy, or the flow of goods and services, gets worse.”

Although the trajectories are opposite, when it comes to current moves in the housing market, there is one thing that the two courses have in common—the Zoom Town.

Born from the need and ability to telecommute, Zoom Town is the latest moniker for locales that have become more populated as a result of increased work-from-home capabilities. Telecommuting has enabled greater housing choice with many employees no longer tied to physical offices.

Throughout the country, these towns have common characteristics. Typically, in small or rural areas, they have outdoor recreation opportunities, a downtown described as historic or quaint, and space to spread out (indoors and out). Many of them are within a few hours of metropolitan areas and job centers. Pre-pandemic, some were even considered vacation destinations. But not all Zoom Towns are resorts or quaint: many are simply affordable exurbs.

Whichever K trajectory people are on, both socio-economic groups are desiring Zoom Town qualities. Which, along with low mortgage rates, is why they are quickly migrating.

Which market segments are mostly making the moves? Millennials, still considered the largest home-buying group, are transitioning from their parent’s homes into the housing market. Interestingly, while they once desired city-life, research shows that it is no longer a priority. Millennials are beginning to sacrifice hip, expensive, dense metropolitan lifestyles for spacious, more economical, bucolic places. Telecommuting enables this choice.

Family households are also on the move. They want more space for their work from home, school from home, always at home, current lifestyle. Zoom Towns are fulfilling these preferences, as they are more suburban, potentially less expensive and offer more varied housing opportunities.

Zillow estimates that with the freedom to telecommute, approximately two-million buyers could enter the market.

Some city-dwellers are now realizing they are paying high rents in dense urban environments that once boasted location, nightlife, walkability and interaction. Thanks to COVID-19 (sarcasm intended), these features are now either unavailable or discouraged. Because these people do not need to be close to their offices, they can move their jobs to where they want to live. Zillow estimates that with the freedom to telecommute, approximately two-million buyers could enter the market.

For those on the upward trajectory or with big families, interior space and the outdoors have become drivers for relocating, which are also characteristic of second homes. According to John Burns Real Estate Consulting, there is an uptick in second homes that are within a four-hour drive of primary residences. Stays at vacation homes have grown from weekends to weeks and even months—more Zoom Towns in the making. Vacation destinations are turning into permanent residences.

In September, Forbes.com issued a list of American Zoom Towns that are known vacation spots. Topping the list is Kingston, New York. The attraction to Kingston is its vibrant downtown, arts community, and outdoor recreation opportunities.

Butte, Montana came in fifth. Recently seeing a surge in popularity and home prices, residents enjoy its low density, vast open spaces, and recreation opportunities.

Aspen, Colorado has also become a Zoom Town, reflected by increased school enrollment resulting from a recent housing surge. For those on the upward trajectory, this luxurious resort destination boasts year-round outdoor activities and a quaint downtown. Price point aside, these communities share common characteristics.

When the worst of times happens, the best of times are more appreciated. The pandemic has brought sadness but also reassessment of priorities and well-being. Technological advancements have created broader residential choices launching Zoom Towns, pleasant locales that answer the request for more satisfying lives.

Julia Malisos, LEED AP is a Principal- Planning/Community Design at WHA Architecture, Planning and Design with offices in Newport Beach, Long Beach, and San Ramon. Julia can be reached at juliam@whainc.com.

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