Remote workers spur housing boom in smaller US cities, drive up prices

One couple never imagined that they would call Billings, Montana, home.

September 14, 2021, 5:03 AM

Travis and Emily Elwood never imagined that they would call Billings, Montana, home.

The couple moved here from Portland, Oregon, last year when the pandemic forced them to reevaluate their priorities.

“I think humans just… are creatures of habit,” Travis Elwood told “Nightline.” “The pandemic coming in and forcing a change, versus one that you volunteer for, really just shook things up and everybody's day-to-day lives and just kind of opened their eyes. [The massive change] broke off those chains and shackles [that] kind of held them in place.”

PHOTO: Travis and Emily Elwood of Billings, Montana.
Travis and Emily Elwood of Billings, Montana.

He and his wife are part of a great reshuffling taking place in the U.S. According to American real estate company Zillow, more than one in ten Americans have moved in the past year.

“For a long time, people have thought to move closer to cities because that's where jobs are and if you wanted to minimize your commute, you wanted to get as close as possible. Now, as a result of the pandemic, a lot of workers have been untethered from their offices. And so that means they can broaden their search horizons for real estate,” Danielle Hale, chief economist at, told ABC News.

“They're looking for good value further away from those downtown cores. And that's led to home price increases,” she added.

The Elwoods had long talked about leaving Portland for a more affordable city.

“Rent for like a small apartment is quite astronomical. I mean, you're looking $1,700 to $1,900 a month for a two-bedroom apartment,” Travis Elwood said.

When his wife began working remotely, the change gave the couple financial security -- and they decided to take the plunge.

PHOTO: Danielle Hale, chief economist at
Danielle Hale, chief economist at

“We never in Portland would have been able to afford a house there, at least nothing like what we have now,” Emily Elwood said. “We were making pretty good money, but we just realized we were never going to buy there.”

Billings happened to have almost everything they were looking for.

“We wanted to change, so we wanted to make sure it wasn't just a side step from where we were and something that was different, provided us new or different opportunities than-than we originally had,” Travis Elwood said.

The Montana city is #1 on the Wall Street Journal and emerging housing markets index

“I think people are kind of waking up to what many of us here have known,” Bill Cole, the mayor of the city, told “Nightline.” “Covid reminded us that life is not all about jobs and money. It's about relationships, quality of life, and being part of a community. And Billings has those intangibles.”

Hale explained the Wall Street Journal / Emerging Housing Markets Index is designed to track real estate markets that are going to be attractive for investment.

“[It’s] looking at a lot of different data indicators on things like amenities and quality of life, like low commute times, things like decent wages and low unemployment rate,” Hale said. “That makes these areas well rounded places where you'd actually want to live. And if you invest in real estate in these markets, you can expect a good return.”

PHOTO: Mayor Bill Cole of Billings, Montana.
Mayor Bill Cole of Billings, Montana.

Rounding out the emerging markets index list is Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. These locales show that smaller, more affordable cities are becoming some of the most popular places to live in the country.

The Elwoods traded in their two-bedroom apartment for a four-bedroom house with a backyard for their two dogs.

“Our mortgage here is actually less than what we're paying and rents in Portland,” Emily Elwood said.

Her husband found a local job almost immediately. Billings has a population of less than 200,000 people, but its unemployment rate hovers around 3% -- lower than the national average of 5.2%.

“I had a handful of offers in my first week here, so within my second week of being in Montana, I had a job,” he said.

Husband and wife realtors Megan and Jason Wood sold the Elwoods their home.

“Living in Billings and living in south central Montana is all about being close to the mountains and having the access to the river and the desert and some of the other nice outdoor activities,” Jason Wood told “Nightline.”

Like many mid-sized cities, Billings is experiencing a pandemic real estate boom.

“Pre-pandemic in 2019, there was about three-and-a-half months worth of inventory sitting on the market. Today, we have about three weeks worth of inventory,” Megan Wood said.

Houses are flying off the market.

“Houses are moving very quickly here. So you have three, four or five days to get an offer in and get an offer accepted,” her husband said.

While still less expensive than many cities, prices are going up. The average single-family home price in Billings and the surrounding area was $376,248 in June, up almost 28% from a year earlier.

“Homes in Billings are definitely going above asking price at the moment,” Megan Wood told “Nightline.” “The median for the month of July, the median amount over the asking price was about 6% sales price versus the list price.”

It seems new homes can’t be built quickly enough to keep up with demand. Almost all the homes in the subdivision, which range from $350,000 to $700,000 are already sold.

“The demand for houses is very, very high this year. We're selling houses as soon as they're done or even before they're done,” Chad Wagenhals, Builder/Realtor at CDW Construction said. “We probably get a house framed and within the first two weeks, the house is sold. So if the house goes on the market, it's usually sold in two or three days, if not two or three hours.”

PHOTO: Megan and Jason Wood are realtors in Billings, Montana.
Megan and Jason Wood are realtors in Billings, Montana.

With remote work freeing many people from their daily commute, families looking to stretch their dollar and their square footage are being up the suburbs, too.

“It's crazy. It's absolutely crazy,” real estate agent Pat Davis said. She’s been selling homes in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City for 30 years. “We have a lot of young people coming in with children that are looking for these types of homes, starter homes, three bedrooms, looking for it to entertain their families and have them come out.”

Davis just listed a house in Montclair, New Jersey, for $639,000. The town has become a magnet for families who want to live in the suburbs but still have easy access to New York City. With its direct trains, highly rated schools and quaint downtown area, it has much of what home buyers are willing to pay top dollar for.“What we're seeing is a lot of families with young children, two and younger,” Pat Davis said.

Davis says the house went into contract for more than asking price, after just 13 days on the market.“We did a weekend open house on Saturday, Sunday. We had over 50 people come through,” Davis said.

Not everyone can afford this. The boom has locked out many first time buyers across the country, who are losing their dream homes to all-cash, above-ask offers.

PHOTO: Suburban New Jersey real estate agent Pat Davis.
Suburban New Jersey real estate agent Pat Davis.

“It's really tough to compete in a market like this,” Davis said. “If you're a first time home buyer and you don't have the down payment money, if you're using one of the products that's available for people that are first time home buyers, that don't have a lot of down payment money… They're just not able to compete in this marketplace.”

“On the flip side, the one thing that is a positive for first time buyers is that they tend to take out larger loans,” Hale said. “They're borrowing more money. And so low mortgage rates really help to benefit first time home buyers. But in today's competitive market, the biggest challenge for many is finding a home that's right for them and then winning the offer.

The Elwoods had to pay over asking price to close the deal on their house.

“We ended up having to put, you know, about $30,000 more or above the asking price. And even with that, we are one of 10 offers that came in,” Travis Elwood said. “So [that] really shows how crazy the house market has gotten over the last few months and so forth.”

But the couple says their new life in Billings makes it all worth it.

“I’d do it a hundred times over,” he added. “Thankfully, we've been blessed that it has come out in the best case.”

“It feels like home here,” Emily Elwood said.