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Economy

The pandemic has sparked rising house prices across the rural U.S.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

You can usually find real estate in rural towns for less than what you would pay to live in a city, but the pandemic has sparked high housing prices across the country in rural places that don't usually see them. And it's impacting longtime residents. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: For years, the runup in housing prices passed by vast stretches of so-called flyover country. Take Osceola, Mo., a town of 900 an hour beyond the outskirts of Kansas City. It's smaller than it was a century ago, and home prices were in the basement for decades before the pandemic hit.

ROBERT VELASQUEZ: Nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Nice to meet you.

MORRIS: On a recent morning, the small real estate office on the square in Osceola is full of Californians like Robert Velasquez. And housing is in short supply.

VELASQUEZ: You know why? People like us coming out here is why you've got a shortage on homes.

MORRIS: Velasquez, along with his wife and her siblings, are shopping for property here. They're approaching retirement and say that California has become too expensive and, for them, too liberal. And Velasquez's brother-in-law Craig Yoder says that coming from California, they're wielding substantial buying power in rural Missouri.

CRAIG YODER: We have three good incomes and three properties that we can sell in California for a big - I own my house outright. So it's pure profit. And the prices have gone crazy.

MORRIS: And prospective buyers like Yoder are driving up rural home prices, according to Daryl Fairweather, an economist with the real estate brokerage Redfin.

DARYL FAIRWEATHER: People are moving towards places that are more affordable because of remote work that they wouldn't have considered before. I'm actually part of this trend. I moved from Seattle, which had been seeing price growth for quite some time, to a rural part of Wisconsin.

MORRIS: To Williams Bay, Wis., a town of about 2,600 on a small lake. Home prices in her new hometown spiked about 20% in the last year. Fairweather says remote work is driving lots of the rural relocations, with climate change, politics and lifestyle issues also propelling moves. The rise in rural property values can vary dramatically from region to region and town to town. But Zillow economist Alexandra Lee says, on average, rural home prices are up around 16%, and that in many places, it's the first big price spike in anyone's memory.

ALEXANDRA LEE: I think that might especially feel momentous in a rural area where home values are lower, where incomes are generally lower, suddenly seeing a runup in prices on par with metropolitan areas.

MORRIS: That city-style price jump can fall hard on people like Misty Ketner, a mother of three who works in a kitchen in a combination restaurant, gas station and craft store in Osceola. And she says the housing crisis has split up her family.

MISTY KETNER: My daughter lives with my sister at the moment because I don't have a home. My two boys are living with the ex-husband. And I'm staying with friends because there is no housing.

MORRIS: Ketner doesn't want to buy. She just wants to rent a place in a town where she's lived for 20 years. Michelle Johnson, who manages a gas station and restaurant here, says Ketner's struggle is a familiar one. Hurting businesses lose good workers.

MICHELLE JOHNSON: Finding them housing in this town is incredibly difficult. And then if they can't find housing here, they're going to move on and probably not continue to be an employee here.

MORRIS: Redfin's Daryl Fairweather says rural rents will likely keep rising next year but that the unprecedented surge in interest in remote rural real estate may be easing.

FAIRWEATHER: Now things have equalized, and I think that's because the pandemic is subsiding. People are more eager to get back to cities and enjoy big-city amenities.

MORRIS: Still, Fairweather expects rural home prices to keep climbing as people find themselves priced out of cities and suburbs and continue to look for cheaper places to live. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYKSOPP'S "EPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.