The 2020 NAR Community Preference Survey

Americans’ Preferences Are Shifting Amid COVID-19 Impacts

This is a tale of two surveys — one taken before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country and the other after. The results show that in the handful of months between February and July, the coronavirus changed some of the ways people across America — especially young people — think about how and where they live.

Although generally done every two years, the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR) conducted a pair of Community and Transportation Surveys in 2020 to identify emerging trends and changing preferences in response to the coronavirus.

While the majority of all Americans in the top 50 metropolitan areas — 80 percent or more — remain satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of life in their community, those under 40 are more likely to say the pandemic has negatively affected their quality of life.

Other key takeaways from the two surveys:

  • A strong demand for walkability persists for Americans of all ages, with Americans older than 55 and those with higher incomes showing an increased interest in walkability.
  • People with places to walk remain more satisfied with their quality of life, although the overall number who say they live in very walkable communities fell almost 10 percent.
  • One in five people living in a detached home would prefer to live in an attached home if it meant living in a walkable community with a shorter commute. Only one in 10 prefer the opposite tradeoff.
  • Families with children in school show an increased desire for detached homes and larger yards.
  • The importance of accessibility to public transit and easy access to the highway dropped across all ages.
  • City residents, especially those living downtown, desire more space inside and out — including room for a home office or private workspace.

NAR has conducted community preferences surveys, in one form or another for 20 years, providing REALTORS® and local communities with important information about changes and helping them advocate for smart growth strategies in response to those shifts.

Although drawing conclusions is always tricky, the two surveys make the case that COVID may be nudging the needle when it comes to the growing role walkability plays in decisions about where to live.

Before the pandemic, a little less than 50 percent of people in each generation said sidewalks and places to walk are very important factors in deciding where to live. After the pandemic, that number climbed above 50 in every generation except the silent/greatest (ages over 75) — and even that generation expressed greater interest after COVID than before.

The biggest change in attitude came from Generation X (ages 40-55). The number of Gen Xers that consider walkability an important factor rose to 55 percent in July from 49 percent in February.

A second question about walkability produced a divided — and somewhat contradictory — response. When asked about the importance of being within an easy walk of other places and things, the number of Gen Xers who agreed that was very important rose to 42 percent in July from 37 percent in February. Baby boomers (ages 56-74) and the silent/greatest generations expressed similar but less pronounced upticks.

However, the opposite was true for Gen Z (ages 6-21) and millennials (ages 22-38). The percentage of Gen Z that said being within an easy walk of places was very important fell five points between February (50%) and July (45%). The drop among millennials was four points (43% to 39%).

Jill Locontore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, believes that walking is having a moment during the pandemic as people are sticking closer to home.

“We’ve definitely seen a change since COVID in people’s mobility habits, including a real uptick in walking and biking,” she said. “I think it is helping people understand the concept of a 15-minute neighborhood where the kinds of things that you might need on a daily basis are within an easy 15-minute walk or bike ride from your house.”

Denver is among a number of cities that are restricting traffic on some streets to give people more space for walking and biking. “It was an experiment in how people would react and the reactions have been almost universally positive,” Locontore said.

Based on the reaction, the experiment may morph into permanent change, Locontore said. “It’s just been a revelation about how amazing it is to be able to reclaim that space and feel safe walking and biking,” she said.

Responses to questions involving transportation reflected another possible link to a COVID phenomenon — the rise in working at home and the fall in commuting.

The importance of being within a short commute to work fell across every age group (excluding the silent/greatest generation). The percentage of millennials who considered that a very important factor fell to 40 percent in July from 49 percent in February — the most of any demographic.

COVID may be nudging the needle when it comes to the growing role walkability plays in decisions about where to live.

The importance of being close to the highway and having transit nearby also fell across all generations. The steepest of those declines was an eight-point drop in baby boomers, who considered access to the highway very important (39% to 31%). There were also six-point declines among Gen Z (37% to 31%) and millennials (40% to 34%) who considered having public transit nearby very important.

Bar chart: People with Access to Walk Remain More Satisfied with their Quality of Life

Besides breaking down attitudes about highway access and transit availability by generation, the two surveys broke them down by income.

The more money people made, the less likely they were to care about short commutes and highway access — more possible fallout from COVID as jobs that can be done remotely without commuting tend to pay more than those that require people to continue to commute to work.

Among those making less than $50,000, the number who considered a short commute very important remained virtually the same, dipping just one point to 38 percent from 39 percent. However, among those making $100,000 or more, the number fell to 36 percent from 42 percent. Among those making $50,000 to $100,000 a year, it fell to 35 percent from 39 percent.

The same scenario played out in terms of easy access to the highway. Among people making less than $50,000, the percentage who considered highway access very important was nearly identical before COVID (34%) and after COVID (33%). However, among those making $50,000 to $100,000, the percentage who considered it very important fell by 10 points to 27 percent from 37 percent. There was also a six-point drop — to 29 percent from 35 percent — among those making $100,000 or more.

Besides being associated with a decreased focus on short commutes and highway access, high incomes also were associated with increased priority on walkability

Among people making $100,000 or more, the number who considered sidewalks and places to walk very important rose seven points — climbing to 56 percent from 49 percent. There was a four-point increase — to 54 percent from 50 percent — among those making less than $50,000. The number among those making $50-$100,000 remained flat at 38 percent.

Those in the top-income bracket also put a greater priority on being within an easy walk of other places. Before COVID, 36 percent said it was very important, but after COVID, that figure rose to 40 percent. There was no change among those in the lower-income bracket as 43 percent considered it very important in both surveys. There was only a slight change downward — to 33 percent from 34 percent — in the middle-income bracket.

Going forward, a lot rides on the future of telecommuting. If working from home becomes a permanent trend, it could fuel desire for more services closer to home — you can’t swing by the dry cleaners on the way to and from a home office — and spur increased demand for walkable development, said Glenn Kellogg, president of G. Kellogg & Co, a Washington, D.C., strategic advisory firm specializing in building walkable communities.

“I see an opportunity for walkable neighborhoods to provide housing, services and [co-working] spaces at a scale people feel comfortable with and where they enjoy being,” he said. “Walkable neighborhoods should become even more desirable and the shortage of them more pronounced.”

Besides asking people if they considered transit availability important, the two surveys asked them if they liked taking transit. Gen Z’s approval rating for transit dropped from 63 percent before COVID to 42 percent after COVID. The number of millennials who liked taking transit also fell — to 47 percent from 53 percent. There was little or no change among the older generations, which were not big fans of transit in the first place.

Bar chart: Millenials Less Focused on Commute Time and Public Transportation During Pandemic

The older generations did, however, express a stronger liking for biking during the pandemic. Gen X registered a nine-point increase — to 55 percent from 46 percent — and baby boomers registered a six-point increase — to 47 percent from 41 percent. That contrasts sharply with Gen Z, which registered a five-point drop to 54 percent, and millennials, who registered a four-point drop to 55 percent.

City residents desire more space inside and out.

The surveys showed little change overall in the narrow divide between Americans who prefer attached walkable homes with shorter commutes versus those who prefer detached homes with longer commutes.

The margin between the two options has fluctuated within a tight range since 2015. After a 50/50 split in the February survey, the detached home option inched up to 52 percent in July.

While the overall margin didn’t change much, there was a noticeable shift in the housing preferences of Gen Z/millennials and Gen X with children in school.

Gen Z/millennials and Gen X with children in school already leaned toward the detached home option before COVID, but their preference grew during the pandemic. The preference among Gen Z/millennials rose to 59 percent from 55 percent. The preference among Gen X rose to 61 percent from 55 percent.

Before the pandemic, 45 percent of Gen Z/millennials with kids in school said they preferred homes with large yards, even if it meant more driving. After the pandemic, 56 percent said they preferred the large yard option. The number of Gen Xers who prefer that option also rose, but only slightly, to 60 percent from 58 percent.

Bar chart: Majority of Gen Z & Millenials with Kids in School Now Want Large Yards

The biggest change of all was the increased desire of those in Gen Z without kids to live in a detached home with a longer commute. They went from a 71 percent and 29 percent split in favor of the attached option, to a nearly even split between attached and detached — a 21-point spike.

The latest survey contained a new battery of questions designed to identify how people feel about possible changes to their housing situation amid the pandemic. Wanting a larger yard or access to more outdoor spaces topped the list of desired changes, as 61 percent strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with that statement. A similar number said they would like to move to an area with fewer people and more outside space.

Other responses included wanting to live closer to family members (58%), wanting to add a private workspace to the current home (56%), and wanting a larger home with more rooms (54%).

Millennials expressed, by far, the strongest desire for bigger homes (70%), while millennials (71%), Gen Z (73%) and Gen X (65%) all expressed strong desires for more outdoor spaces.

“With people working more from home, single-family housing may be experiencing a last gasp of relevance — space for a home office,” Kellogg said. “Personally, I can attest to the difficulty of two adults working from a one-bedroom apartment.”

There was little change in transportation priorities during the pandemic. Roughly three-out-of-four people (73% in February and 71% in July) stated that maintaining roads, highways and bridges should be a high or extremely high priority.

That small change does, however, continue a steady drop from 2015 when 80 percent attached a high or extremely high priority to maintaining transportation infrastructure. There also has been a steady drop in those who attach a high or extremely high priority to building more roads or expanding existing roads to curb congestion. Support for that fell from 54 percent in 2015 to 47 percent this February and 45 percent in July.

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