How Remote Work Affected the Housing Market

Working remotely over the past 2.5 years is partly to blame for the pandemic-era explosion in housing prices, according to a new study.  Remote work accounted for about half of the 23.8% growth nationwide of housing prices since 2019 – at about 15.1% according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way prople work, with 42.8% of employees still working from home part or full-time in November 2021.  While the trend has heavily affected the labor market, office strategy and the employer-employee dynamic, the research shows it’s also impacting housing.  This research also took into account how remote work also affected local areas, including inflation as people moved to areas made more feasable by remote work – a trend that is shaping migration patterns, the homebuilding sector,  and how communities recruit new residents.

The results suggest that house price growth over the pandemic reflected a change in fundamentals rather than a speculative bubble, and that fiscal and monetary stimulus were less important factors.  This implies that the policy makers need to pay close attention to the evolution of future house price growth and inflation.

The researchers found that remote work also had the same net effect on rental growth, and also a more limited, but negative affect on commercial rents.  But the researchers also expect remote work to continue to impact the housing market and stressed that it did not look like a bubble in housing prices.  They conclude that the shift to remote work induced by the pandemic caused a large increase in housing demand.  This suggests a fundamentials-based explanation for the most rapid increase in house prices on record, and that the future of remote work may be critical for the path of housing demand and house prices going forward.

The contribution of remote work comes as the housing market, despite showing some signs of cooling, continues to stay strong in 2022.  About 60% of sellers report getting at least two offers on their home, according to the real estate company Zillow, and nearly half of all homes sold in the U.S. in April 2022 went for over asking price, up from 37% a year ago.

There are also 23% fewer homes on the market than there were a year ago, and 40% of buyers waived a contingency, such as financing or inspection on at least one of their offers.  However, the number of overall housing transactions has dropped 13.6% over the same time last year according to the National Association of Realtors, even as pending home sales are up slightly. Despite the small gain in pending sales from the prior month, the housing market is clearly undergoing a transition.  Contract signings are down sizably from a year ago because of much higher mortgage rates.

Rising interest rates has meant that a median-priced family home with a 10% down-payment will cost an extra $800 a month compared to the beginning of the year.  Trying to balance the housing market by choking off demand via higher mortgage rates is damaging to consumers and the economy.  The better way to balance the market is through increased supply, which also helps the broader economy.  Overall rising costs, including inflation and gas has meant that many companies are seeing their return-to-office plans stall, with occupancy rates flattening out instead of continuing to grow.  Meanwhile, investors and institutional buyers may be throttling back their single-family home buying spree in recent months, but their share of the overall market continues to grow as sales decline.