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

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.”

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.

“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.”

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…

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

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