Migration to booming 'Zoom towns' in Pacific Northwest sends home prices into overdrive

Dec 3, 2020

You can add a new term to your lexicon: "Zoom towns." These are scenic places experiencing a surge of house hunters. Booming demand comes from workers freed by the pandemic to work from home long term.

One such place where the pandemic has super-charged an already hot real estate market is Bend, Oregon.

"I think 'Zoom town' very accurately captures the experience that we're having right now," said Brian Ladd, a principal broker with Cascade Sotheby's International Realty in Bend.

"For anyone that had interest in moving to a town like ours, that plan was greatly accelerated because of COVID," Ladd said in an interview over Zoom, of course. "When they were able to work remotely, or they were forced to work remotely, all of a sudden it became an option."

Ladd's observations are shared by brokers in at least half a dozen other outdoorsy, vacation destinations around the Pacific Northwest. Places to label as Zoom towns besides Bend could include its resort community neighbor Sunriver and parts of the Oregon Coast. In Washington state, realtors in the Methow Valley said they are feeling it for sure as well as in the San Juan Islands. There's Kelowna, British Columbia, Sandpoint, Idaho, and Bozeman, Montana, too.

"The majority of our agents, and those throughout the county are having their best year ever," wrote Merri Ann Simonson with Coldwell Banker San Juan Islands, in an October update.

Simonson predicted the total dollar volume of sales in 2020 will easily break the record for San Juan County despite the COVID shock and temporary shutdown experienced in spring.

"When COVID hit and businesses were required to work off-site, the game was on as to who could make the move fast enough to buy while there were still some homes for sale," Ann Eckmann, broker/owner of Blue Sky Real Estate in Winthrop, told the Methow Valley News. The owner of another agency in the north central Washington valley said an urban influx was causing an overwhelming "COVID land rush."

The housing market nationwide has shown remarkable strength in 2020, driven by low interest rates and desire among buyers to acquire more elbow room. What distinguishes the Zoom towns is strong in-migration this year from larger locales. At these destinations, home sales since late spring have gone on a tear, resulting in very low inventory and rapidly rising housing prices.

In Bend and surrounding Deschutes County, the average residential home price in October was up 17% year over year. The median sales price in October in Bend was $560,000. Ladd said the average number of days on the market for desirable homes to go pending is around five days, which means many homes get multiple offers.

"What it felt like is it really unleashed a whole wave of people who had had the dream of moving and living in a beautiful place like this, and it seemingly all happened at once," said Ladd.

One person who rode that wave was Rory Capern. He moved out West from Canada's largest city, Toronto. Capern downshifted from a series of demanding management jobs (including at Twitter and Google Canada) to become a tech industry consultant. He and his family settled this spring on Vancouver Island in the small town of Cowichan Bay.

"The adjustment has actually been remarkably easy from a lifestyle perspective," Capern said. "We've given nothing away in the context of access to great restaurants -- when the restaurants are open. There are wonderful things to do for recreation and so on. It really hasn't been the tradeoff that I honestly thought it was going to be."

Not just any scenic place can be a Zoom town. Capern has flexibility as an independent advisor now, but said he wanted to live reasonably close to a jet airport -- that's Victoria International, in his case. Another factor he considered when relocating with his family this year was availability of really fast internet in the community.

"One of those top five criteria for where we were going to live was the ability to get gigabit internet to the house," he said. "We have it and it opened up that opportunity."

"The ability to work remotely has enabled me to keep strong connections with Toronto, Montreal, NYC, SF, London UK...all over the world," Capern added in a social media post on LinkedIn.

Meanwhile, the Zoom town phenomenon is exacerbating preexisting issues with scarcity of affordable housing in such places. It also raises questions of equity and privilege for service and front-line workers who don't have the option to work remotely or to relocate wherever they like.

Such workers might like Luke Mari's take on this. He's a housing developer active in Victoria with Aryze Developments.

"I might be the odd person out here, but to me this is temporary," Mari said.

He figures bigger cities will regain their shine once the population gets vaccinated against COVID and the pandemic ends.

"We're moving to towns where we may not know many people," Mari said. "Our work is our primary location of meeting new friends. Maybe I'm just super old school, but I still think humans are hardwired for that social interaction."

Mari spoke during a recent webinar about the "Zoom Boom" organized by the Pacific Northwest Economic Region policy forum. Others on the panel said boom and bust are not the only possible outcomes. Post-pandemic work life could be known for having options, with some workers choosing to migrate back to central offices and others seizing the new freedom some employers are giving to work from home permanently.