Study finds that remote work is allowing people to move to cheaper, rural areas

Back in January, the Center For Rural Policy and Development reported that:

In 2020 and 2021, the decades-long trend of population loss in rural counties and population gain in urban ones was disrupted by the pandemic in a noticeable way.

  • The newest population estimates reveal that rural Minnesota counties experienced a population increase from in-migration, while at the same time, the Twin Cities’ urban counties experienced enough out-migration to result in their first population decline in many years. Meanwhile, Greater Minnesota counties with higher percentages of non-white populations continued to see growth as well.

Was this a one-off or will it continue? Will the populations of “rural” counties continue to grow more quickly than those of “urban” counties?

One thing which suggests that this might be a trend with some longevity is that remote working allows people who work where housing is relatively expensive to live somewhere where housing is relatively cheap without spending half their life stuck on a freeway.

Increased willingness to move

Indeed, a recent study by Fannie Mae finds that more people are willing to move to less expensive areas further away from offices in city centers than a few years ago.

At the beginning of this year, 22% of remote and hybrid workers said they would be willing to relocate to a different region or increase their commute, up from 14% in the third quarter of 2021. The research also found that among remote workers, all age and income groups have grown more willing to relocate or live farther away from their workplace since 2021. But younger workers — those between 18 and 34 — are significantly more willing than older workers to live or commute a further distance from their work, with the share willing to do so jumping from 18% in 2021 to 30% in 2023.

The authors conclude:

We believe this greater willingness to live farther from the…workplace may be an indication that some workers are feeling more secure about their remote work situation…or their ability to find another job if their current employer were to change its policies.

Persistence of remote working

They may have good reason for this sense of security. The study found that remote and hybrid work may be here to stay, or, at least, stick with us long enough for people to buy or rent a new home because of it.

In the first part of 2023, 35% of respondents worked fully remote or worked a hybrid mix of some time at a workplace and some time at home, only slightly down from 36% in 2021. While the share of workers going to a work site or office every day was unchanged from 2021 to 2023 at 49%, the share of people working fully remote ticked up to 14% this year from 13% in 2021.

Affordability trumps ‘neighborhood’

There are, as economists like to say, trade-offs. There are fewer cultural amenities — restaurants, museums, sports stadiums, etc. — in a rural area than in an urban area so, while you gain in affordability by moving to a rural area, you lose in access to those. You have to weigh the relative value of each.

Here, the Fannie Mae study finds that people are increasingly valuing affordability over “neighborhood.”

“Affordability” was the top factor for people when picking a new home, at 36%. This was well up from 2014, the last time the question was asked, when the top consideration was “neighborhood” at 49%. Both homeowners and renters showed a greater preference for affordability, but the increase was greatest among renters, shooting up from 21% in 2014 to 46% in 2023. The authors note that:

“The change in preference for renters is truly remarkable, since not only did it more than double, but it represented a complete reversal of the relative importance of neighborhood cited by consumers as the top consideration in 2014.”

All of this suggests that Minnesota’s relatively faster rural population growth might continue.