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When your house is also your office, where should you buy?

By Liz Keuler

December 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in an unparalleled era of remote work – one that many experts say is here to stay. And some real estate experts think that will lead homebuyers to look for more space and more privacy by moving away from city centers and toward the suburbs. 

If you’re looking for a home now, you may wonder how to decide where to buy. My take? Think about how the house you buy now fits into your long-term goals, not just your immediate needs. 

Urban vs. suburban living

Traditionally, city living came at a higher cost with the attractions of shorter commutes and walkable neighborhoods close to dining, shopping and entertainment. Suburban living offered more space and more affordable prices, further from the action. Now, untethered from the commute, remote workers may choose to disperse to locations where the average home offers more space for families to stretch out and not be in each other’s faces all day. 

More people are working at home – but not as many as you may think

Gallup recently reported that 26% of workers polled said they are working entirely at home, which may seem low compared to the hyperbolic numbers thrown around early in the pandemic. But Gallup also reported a sharp increase in the average number of days per month that workers are telecommuting – meaning that among those who work remotely some of the time, that “some of the time” is growing.  And even if you’re only working at home 2 days a week, you may not want to do that at your dining room table where your daughter is also trying to learn remotely.

It’s important to note that Gallup also reported that 51% of workers polled still work entirely outside the home. For those of us lucky enough to keep a job, not all of us have the luxury of working at home even part of the time.

Working with what you’ve got when you’re newly working at home

8 years ago, when we bought our 1,200-square-foot home in a “hip,” walkable neighborhood near downtown Milwaukee, my husband worked at home 2 or 3 days a week, so the second bedroom with room for a desk was a must. 

Now we’ve both been working at home full-time since March. A third bedroom or oddly-shaped bonus room would really come in handy right now. For a while I worked from a corner of our bedroom, until I decided it wasn’t good for my mental health to spend 20 out of every 24 hours there. I write this from a 27-inch desk wedged into our living room, and it’s mostly fine! It could be so much worse – I can hear you New-York-studio folks rolling your eyes at me. 

Why I still love living in our smallish home in the city

Most of the factors that made city living so attractive to us 8 years ago still apply, and in some cases are more important than ever. Our neighborhood is still walkable, and daily walks are a vital part of our lives right now. With our commute reduced to zero, and groceries and takeout available on foot, our carbon footprint has shrunk. I feel less isolated seeing the masked city bustling around us. 

So while there are some drawbacks, our current home still feels like the right place for us to live right now.  But if fulltime remote work becomes a permanent part of our lives, we might consider moving up to a larger home – it’s just too soon to tell.

Deciding where to buy? A home office is still just one factor among many

If where you live is also where you work right now, you may decide that a little extra space is worth looking for a home a little farther away than you planned. Or even a lot farther away, if you work for a company that has declared you can work from anywhere, permanently. Or you may decide to buy a house, whatever its square footage, because you feel so connected to a neighborhood, a school, or a community.

The most important thing is to make sure the house you buy fits your priorities and your budget, no matter where it’s located. Think about how long you plan to live in the house: are you looking for something that will suit your needs for the next 5 years, then move up? Or (like us), do you hope to stay in the house for a long time? Do you think you might start (or add to) your family while you live there? Are you settled in your area, or is it possible you may want to make a big move? At the same time, remember that you can’t plan for every contingency. After all, none of us could have predicted 2020!

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Liz Keuler is the editor of Readynest. She spent a decade meandering through radio, nonprofits and the corporate world before convincing MGIC to hire her based on her staunch grammatical convictions. She lives in a charming 100-year-old bungalow on Milwaukee’s East Side. Her interests include old Ernst Lubitsch films, new action movies, 60s girl pop, Regency romance novels, word games, sewing and shallots.
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