Remote work is turning America into a ‘suburban nation,’ a massive millennial survey by BofA finds

May 5, 2023, 6:00 PM UTC
Millennials are looking for a good place to buy a home, and they're finding suburbia to answer the call.
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American suburbia comes loaded with preconceptions and promises: It’s a haven for loitering, bored teens in strip malls and a hell for road-rage-filled drivers hunting for deals and hot dogs in Costco parking lots. The locale has shifted from the idyllic 1950s perfection of The Dick Van Dyke Show and I Love Lucy to the quiet and repressive villain in more recent fare like Twin Peaks or any Todd Solondz movie. One of the starkest depictions may have been in The Good Place, where a suburban development was (spoiler alert) revealed to be designed by an actual demon experimenting with a new circle of hell.

For eight years now, as millennials have entered their thirties and forties, also known as “homebuying age,” Bank of America has surveyed over 1,000 members of the generation once a year for its Home Work series. And for 2023’s edition, it finds a “suburban nation” alive and well. Older millennials (age 31–41) are almost three times as likely to move into a house than an apartment, the survey found, and they’ve got a hunger for the Costco dog, so to speak. 

Migration patterns during the pandemic have clearly established that most homebuyers have wanted to flee big cities, with some “zoomtowns” such as Boise benefiting in particular. But the survey reveals something even more drastic. In a section called “suburban nation,” BofA reveals that 43% to 45% of millennials—of every age—expect to buy a house in the suburbs.

“We expect the ability to WFH to remain an incentive for young families to seek out more remote suburban and rural markets where housing may be more affordable,” wrote the BofA team led by research analyst Elizabeth Suzuki. And remote work is still robust, they added.

Millennials are also looking toward the suburbs for wealth-building. A majority (two-thirds) of them believe that they’ll buy a home in the next two years, citing a return on investment as the number one reason for purchasing. 

The interest is pervasive across the generation, and maybe means that the suburb is in for a new and better revival. And a 2021 study from Pew Research Center found that one in five adults preferred city life, compared to one quarter of adults in 2018, those who favored the suburbs increased post COVID-19 as well. One of suburbia’s worst qualities or stereotypes was its pervasive whiteness, now with the surge in interest the suburbs are starting to grow to reflect the diversity of the country at large. Big suburbs are actually now more racially diverse than the nation, according to a Brookings analysis

Millennials are increasingly looking to buy rather than rent, even compared to just last year, as the cost of rent hikes and more of the cohort ages into suburban fixtures like marriage and having children. Last summer, Brookings shared its calculations with the Wall Street Journal that a married, middle-income household with two kids would likely spend more than $300,000 on one of their children. With an already surging price tag of having a family, living well might mean leading a bit more of a boring day-to-day and shipping out to a life of lawn mowing and book club. 

But just because there was a mass exodus from many cities during the pandemic doesn’t mean the suburban dream was readily attainable, as Brookings pointed out last July that suburban growth around most metro areas showed signs of slowing as of the end of 2021. Still, big cities saw “historic population losses” over the same period. More recently, major metros such as New York City have rebounded, but inflation continues to make the suburbs and small towns more appealing as those with remote jobs are able to move for a bargain. 

That doesn’t mean that millennials don’t understand how dire the housing market can be. In fact, many are especially pessimistic about the future: 61% think home prices will rise and 71% believe rents will go up in the next three years. While there are more millennial homeowners than ever before, those who have been pushed out of the market entirely cite issues of affordability as major setbacks. But as the BofA survey suggests, the pandemic has given new legs to the idyllic, then dreaded, then beloved suburban lifestyle. Millennials reported to BoA that the pandemic increased their likelihood of buying a home, and there’s an overwhelmingly popular destination of where to go. They want to go to the good place.  

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