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COVID is upending Europe’s property market as the wealthy look to leave cities in droves

July 14, 2020, 4:30 AM UTC

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A global pandemic isn’t enough to drive wealthy house hunters out of the property market. But it has changed what they’re looking for: big houses—preferably in the countryside.

Around the world, the spread of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns have made especially desirable access to space inside and out, real estate agencies say, while a new culture of working from home has also made leaving the inner city for good more doable than ever.

While the desire to escape to the countryside may be widespread, the wealthiest homebuyers have the option (and resources) to actually act on it.

The desire to put down roots in the countryside is more common in Europe, where a survey of wealthy investors by UBS this week found more than half of well-to-do Europeans in Britain, Germany, France, and Italy now wish to move away from cities to less populated areas. A third of rich Americans said something similar.

In the U.K. and France, this reverse-urbanization pandemic shift has been confirmed by a battery of surveys. A poll in early May by the global real estate company Savills found that four in 10 prospective buyers in the U.K. now find a village location more attractive than they had pre-COVID, with the proportion rising to 54% for those with school-aged children.

The potential for a “rural renaissance” comes as country houses look increasingly attractive compared to the houses and flats in cities and towns, said Frances Clacy, an analyst at Savills.

“Well-connected village locations, ideal for those who can split their working week between home and office, are likely to be in particular demand,” she added.

A couple walk through the vineyards on Oct. 13, 2019, around the village of Niedermorschwihr in the Alsace region of eastern France. Wealthy French buyers are increasingly looking for access to green space.
David Silverman—Getty Images

That trend was also reported around Paris, where a survey by luxury estate agents Daniel Féau and Belles Demeures de France found that of buyers who had changed their criteria since the pandemic began, the largest shift was toward properties with more outdoor areas, followed by a shift in location and size.

It’s not just London and Paris: Savills reported in another study in June that about a third of its global markets reported increased interest in “upsizing”—particularly around high-priced cities such as Sydney, Rome, and Monaco.

Nearly three-quarters of the respondents said they agreed demand for green spaces from urban buyers would grow, while 61% said that they believe demand for properties in rural areas would also rise, the agency reported.

The European trend toward escaping the city isn’t new—the French love to quitter la ville, especially for the summer months, while the Romans and Milanese make an August ritual out of the fuga dalla cittá.

And a sudden desire to relocate may simply be lockdown anxieties talking. But agencies like Savills note the shift could also take the form of wealthy buyers executing a high-end switcheroo: Where they once had a city house and a country escape, they may now have a city “bolt-hole” with a primary residence in the countryside.

While the release from sky-high housing prices and property taxes of major cities and the tyranny of the commute may appeal to many, the current trend may still be reserved for the lucky (and wealthy) few. More broadly, urbanization remains the prevailing trend around the world: About three-quarters of Europeans already live in cities, according to the EU.

There’s plenty of room in Europe’s rural spaces. Large parts of the continent are at risk of depopulation, as young people have moved away for jobs, and traditional, rural agricultural jobs have disappeared.

That includes Spain’s rural Galicia region—where estate agents were trying, pre-pandemic, to lure new residents looking for a rural escape—often offering entire hamlets for sale.

The selling point has hardly changed: lots of room, access to nature—and few other people.