The last time Tina Richlin’s phone rang this much was just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when some city residents thought they’d be safer in the mountains.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has the lines at Richlin’s real estate office in rural Sullivan County ringing nonstop again with people seeking to rent short-term, buy second homes, or relocate altogether to somewhere with a smaller population.
“It was so busy, I couldn’t handle it. I sold three homes, sight unseen," Richlin said last week.
"Two of those people are from Philadelphia. One said, ‘I just need to get away from all the people.' ” Neither buyer wanted to be interviewed, Richlin said.
Elizabeth Gorman, a 27-year-old mechanical engineer who lives on Washington Square West, says she has been browsing the real estate website Zillow more than usual, looking at properties in rural Pennsylvania, Iowa, even as far away as Montana.
“It’s definitely crossed my mind a bunch,” Gorman said of leaving the city. “Some of the things have been as wild as renting a van and driving to national parks and buying a portable WiFi system. I do most of my work from a computer."
Increased chances of COVID-19 exposure in denser areas may be fueling some of the queries to rural real estate offices, but Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights at the National Association of Realtors, said another side effect of the pandemic is also involved.
“People who may be working from home permanently are realizing they may be able to work from anywhere,” she said.
Agents are seeing an increase in interest in home offices and backyards, Lautz said, even people asking if they can grow their own food on their property. “We didn’t really see many people concerned about the home office until very recently.”
Earlier this month, a story in The Inquirer about the changing face of office work questioned whether employees will ever have to work, together, in downtown Philadelphia settings. Being able to work anywhere has prompted a Southwest Center City man and his wife to ramp up their searches for rural real estate. The man, who asked not to be identified because he works for a developer in Philadelphia, has been focusing on Jim Thorpe, in Carbon County, and Lake Wallenpaupack, which is 120 miles north of the city.
“We wouldn’t be moving full time,” he said. “Both of us would still need to maintain a presence in Philly. Our address would stay the same, but we would spend more than half our time in a rural setting.”
Sullivan County, with a population of approximately 6,200, is one of Pennsylvania’s most rural counties. As of Tuesday afternoon, the county had just two confirmed cases of COVID-19, tied with Cameron County for the lowest totals in the state. Philadelphia had 17,597 cases.
During the initial phase of the stay-at-home orders, elected officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey discouraged people from traveling to second homes in the Poconos and the Jersey Shore. Some short-term rentals on Craigslist in the Poconos were promising renters would “never” get coronavirus in those remote locations. However, several counties in the Poconos saw spikes in COVID-19 numbers, due largely to residents traveling back and forth to New York and New Jersey for work.
In Tioga County, which has 16 confirmed cases, real estate agent Sandra Stevens said potential buyers are inquiring about houses already sold, offering to outbid the buyer or pay cash.
“A lot of them are coming from New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.,” said Stevens. “We’re getting an awful lot of calls. "
Stevens said one couple who work in New York recently ended a two-month rental in Tioga County and want to come back as soon as something else opens up.
"There are people that are just terribly afraid of this, " she said.
Philadelphia real estate agent Mike McCann said he spoke to one seller on Zoom recently who just said, “We want to get out.” But McCann said he thinks that urge is not prevalent and will subside as the virus does.
“Most people who live in the city want to be there. I can’t see a city person going rural for a primary residence. It’s too isolated,” McCann said. “I mean, maybe they’ll go to Media.”