Home buying and selling slowed down in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but realtors in western Massachusetts say the market has picked up.
Among those looking to move into New England's more rural areas are city dwellers who felt hemmed in by the lockdown — and can now work from anywhere.
Dana Nestor and his wife, Nina Fernandes, fall in that category.
On a recent afternoon, the couple led a tour of their sprawling property — an old farmhouse in Northampton, Massachusetts, not far from Route 66, with several screened-in porches and two barns for extra space.
The house has at least twice the square footage of the apartment where they lived in Brooklyn, and the outside adds another acre of room to spread out.
"I can be out in the yard all day and do my thing and not have to worry about anything, which is not something that I could do in New York,” said Nestor. “I mean, our neighbors were within 6 feet of us.”
“People would be playing soccer next door,” Fernandes added.
Before COVID-19, space didn't matter as much because they spent much of their time outside their New York apartment.
“Your local bar is your den, the restaurant is your kitchen table,” Nestor said. “It's just not as big of a deal when you don't have a shelter-in-place order.”
But in the spring, after weeks of pandemic living, they decided it was time to move.
Nestor could work remotely for his job at a New York foundation, and Fernandes had been planning to go to UMass for graduate school. So they called a realtor in western Massachusetts, who sent a link to this farmhouse.
Nestor managed a trip north just before the city locked down.
“The second I got out of my car, I kind of knew this is perfect for us,” he said.
This kind of story is playing out across western Massachusetts.
'A good time for them to get out of the city'
“Everybody has more clients from the cities,” said Julie Rosten, a realtor with Goggins Real Estate, who is based in Hampshire County.
Rosten opened up a spreadsheet of her current home-shoppers, including six from Boston, two from New York City and one from the Bay Area.
“And they're all COVID-related,” she said. “It was a good time for them to get out of the city.”
In comparison, she said she only had six buyers all last year from Boston, and none from New York.
“Beginning in May, there was literally an explosion in the market,” said Chapin Fish, who co-owns Brockman Real Estate in the Berkshires.
The housing market in the Berkshires is always driven by New Yorkers, but this year it's over the top, Fish said.
Berkshire County house prices in August were up 30% compared to last year, according to the Massachusetts Realtors Association, and sales are up by 35%.
Fish said most properties are under contract in a matter of days, partly because there's a serious housing shortage. Inventory is down by about 50% since last year, according to the realtors association.
“Homes that maybe had not sold for a year or two were all of a sudden selling,” Fish said.
And some people are closing the deals before they even have time to visit the property.
“We actually bought this house sight unseen,” said Asher Pandjiris, who used to live in western Massachusetts but moved to New York for more professional and social opportunities.
Pandjiris and her partner had a large apartment near public transportation. It was easy for her 11-year-old daughter to get to school and to see friends.
“The whole thing kind of felt very exciting, but also doable,” she said. “And then COVID hit and it stopped feeling doable.”
Pandjiris felt especially nervous in public since she's immunocompromised.
Both Pandjiris, a therapist, and her partner, a lawyer, can work remotely with New York clients. So in the spring, their realtor found an old farmhouse in Amherst on its last day on the market. They took a virtual tour and put down an offer.
Compared to New York prices, the house felt inexpensive for the amount of space.
“Like my daughter has a swing inside our kitchen now where she can swing around,” Pandjiris said. “And there's just things we couldn't have in the city — a yard, access to nature.”
'A little bit of a migration' — but not 'a surge'
Even though stories like this are abundant, some people say it's too soon to declare a bona fide trend.
According to a recent analysis by the real estate website Zillow, nationally there hasn't been an exodus of residents out of cities since the pandemic started, though there has been some movement out of New York and San Francisco.
Outside of the Berkshires, the Massachusetts Realtors Association does not show nearly the same rise in prices or sales in the other western counties.
“We are seeing a little bit of a migration, but nothing that the data is really pointing to being any sort of a surge,” said Sue Drumm, president of the Realtor Association of the Pioneer Valley.
Drumm mostly sells homes in Hampden County — including Springfield and Longmeadow — where sales have gone down slightly but prices are up.
Most of the pandemic-related houseshopping Drumm sees are local residents looking for more space to work from home or homeschool their children.
“It's still a little too early to tell how the pandemic is going to affect the real estate market as far as people relocating out of those busy cities,” Drumm said, “until these larger companies decide whether or not the remote work is going to continue.”
For now, with housing inventory down and interest rates low, Drumm said buyers are eager. But in general, the realty field doesn’t know exactly where they’re coming from.
“We really don't have a way of tracking that other than by word of mouth,” she said.
Shelburne-based realtor Michael Seward said he's not seeing more New York clients than usual. He wonders if some realtors are exaggerating the trend without data “because it would imply that it's a good time to sell, that there's a lot of demand.”
“And that's true. There is a lot of demand," he said. “But it's not necessarily because of the pandemic.”
Granted, Seward said, he is spending more time showing homes to buyers who lose bidding wars.
“There's been a housing shortage for years,” he said. “And that housing shortage has been exacerbated by the pandemic because homeowners don't want to put their house on the market and risk exposing themselves to COVID.”
From her perspective, Pandjiris does see a migration trend — at least in her social circle.
“I have like three friends who've essentially relocated from the city to this area during this time. And they had been living in New York for a very long time as well,” she said.
Pandjiris said they often all get together in someone’s yard.
“It's lovely,” she said. “And we get to be outside and, you know, remark upon the fact that we never thought we would ever do this.”