Now that several vaccines are being distributed and hospitalizations appear to be on the decline in many areas, we can start thinking about life after COVID-19. I am interested to see what habits and cultural shifts stay with us and which ones are cast aside as soon as we can safely do so.
My instincts tell me that, for the most part, whatever happens in a crisis stays in a crisis. This is to say, I don’t expect that we will continue to bake our own bread and make time for afternoon walks once all businesses and commerce are back to full steam. But will we go back to shaking hands in the workplace? It is part of our human wiring that old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to grow. So what about the relatively recent cultural trend of working from home?
Even before COVID-19, there was a rise in people working from home.
From early in the crisis, we had a we had a significant increase in working from home early in the crisis, as seen in this chart from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
It is a law of nature that parabolic moves like the number of folks working from home eventually moderate once the pressure that drove them diminishes. This is true in economics (like the parabolic rise in new home sales that are now moderating) and is true for cultural movements.
So will WFH be a cultural shift in society that sticks? The option of WFH is one that has great appeal for many people and offers some benefits to employers as well. For example, a company may shrink its corporate footprint and save on facility costs if its workforce is distributed rather than centralized. And the appeal of WFH will only increase when the additional burden of schooling from home is lifted off working families.
And if WFH does stick, what will the consequences be for the housing market? For most of us, that decision is in our employer’s hands and not one we make for ourselves. But it is exciting to think about what the future may hold for our society if this trend that started during the COVID-19 crisis becomes a permanent feature.
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One possible positive benefit would be an increase in inventory in urban areas. When workers are no longer obligated to live within driving distance to the office, homes in the centralized business area will become less attractive. A family that wants a bigger house or even a young couple who wants to start a family will no longer be geographically bound.
This doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the state — It may just mean going from expensive central cities to more affordable suburbs 20 to 40 miles away. But leaving a state like California to get a much bigger home and a less congested lifestyle for a much lower cost of living will have appeal for some.
Although inventory may increase in some areas, I do not expect WFH to result in forced selling. WFH does not force anyone to sell and move, but it is a variable that could create more inventory in certain areas if people do want to move. The WFH trend is more likely to increase inventory than if mortgage rates fell.
You may be familiar with the questionable mortgage rate lockdown thesis, which suggests that homeowners delay moving to preserve their low mortgage rate on their loan, and if interest rates fell, they would move. Therefore, according to this thesis, if interest rates fall, inventory will rise. This has never happened, and it won’t. Note that the last time rates moved lower, total inventory also went lower – because more folks wanted to get into the market. It all makes sense when you think about it!
The WFH trend may allow some folks to move, but the fact is that people move every year, COVID or no COVID. People move to buy bigger homes, smaller homes, be near better schools, or get away from city life. But the trend before COVID was that Americans were staying in their homes longer. Homes have been growing in size for decades. If a family’s first home is large enough to accommodate a growing family, there is no need to move up. In an article I wrote earlier last year, I highlighted this reason as one factor that is keeping Americans in their homes longer.
American demographics are such that we have many people coming into the family formation/home-buying ages. The years 2020-2024 have the most significant number of people ages 27 to 33 years old ever. We had approximately 32,458,118 Americans in this group in the year 2020.
People of this age typically have gone past the rent, date, and mate phases of their lives and are into the marriage, planning, kids, and home-buying phases. This demographic motherlode means we will have a healthy number of replacement buyers for 2020-2024. Even COVID-19 wasn’t big enough to destroy mother demographics.
With the trend of WFH in play, some people might consider moving who wouldn’t have if the COVID crisis didn’t happen. During 2017-2019, the cities with the most significant total population growth were Dallas, Phoenix, Houston, Atlanta, and Austin.
Looking out in the future, a young couple or a married couple looking to have a larger family might not need to worry about finding a new job to do so.
From the Census Bureau:
Only time will tell if the work-from-home cultural phenomenon is just a trend or a persistent social movement. Curmudgeon that I am, my gut tells me WFH won’t be as big as some people will hope. Surveys show that workers typically feel that they have the resources needed to be productive working from home.
A study of nearly 3,000 employees in a global work from home survey last year showed that 78% of North American office workers say they have the resources they need to be successful. Additionally, most managers “are just as satisfied” with the work performance (70% report the same or better results) of their WFH employees. The companies surveyed included heavy hitters like Adobe, Aetna, and Amazon.
Some companies can function well with some of the workforce home-based. And for some people, it makes perfect sense to take advantage of the WFH trend. A young family that wants a more prominent home than they can afford in their current location can get a bigger home elsewhere and skip the commute to work.
But the question remains: With over 6 million in total home sales, will the WFH trend be big enough to dent this number and create the much-needed inventory to cool down home prices in certain areas and drive home prices up in others?
My guess is no. We tend to go back to the norm, and while working from home sounds great on paper, I don’t think most of corporate America is ready to jump on board fully. I would love to be wrong here. However, like many things that happen in a crisis, the excitement of a change loses its luster once the crisis is over and we drift back to “same as it ever was.”