As the pandemic raged through the Bay Area last year, those who could afford it fled the city for the tranquil wine country to the north. Now they’re returning, realizing they’d left their hearts in San Francisco.
Reports of the San Francisco exodus began to emerge more than a year ago. Some of those who left were renters who decided it wasn’t worth paying $3,000 a month for a cramped studio when the city’s restaurants, bars and cultural activities were closed and they could just as easily — and more cheaply — work from homes outside the city.
More affluent buyers headed for the wine country towns among the rolling hills of Napa and Sonoma counties. Home listings that went into contract in Sonoma doubled in May 2020 from the year before, according to Compass data. With shelter-in-place rules in effect for the foreseeable future, buyers were willing to do whatever it took to close deals quickly. During the same period, San Francisco contracts tumbled by about one-third.
But a funny thing happened over the past year as vaccines rolled out and the city began to reopen. Some who were in a mad dash to move realized that country life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“Napa and Sonoma are beautiful, but [buyers] are bored with the country and miss the city energy,” said Patrick Carlisle, Compass’ chief market analyst in the Bay Area. “I call it the ‘Green Acres Effect’,” an allusion to the 1960s sitcom about a New York City lawyer and his glamorous wife who move to the country to be farmers.
“Some people love the country, and some love the city and are very ready to get back to it,” Carlisle said.
Sandra Eaton found herself yearning for some green acres of her own during the pandemic. She had owned a home in Berkeley’s Claremont Hills for 10 years, but she also had a weekend property in the Sonoma town of Healdsburg.
“When working from home became our new norm, it became obvious to us that our wine country house was more than a weekend retreat,” she said. “It was our sanctuary.”
Eaton had already been thinking about selling her Berkeley home when her youngest son moved out, but the pandemic pushed her to put it on the market sooner. She listed it in August of last year, received multiple offers as areas just outside San Francisco were also being flooded with city emigrants and closed in 30 days.
At first, Eaton was enamored with living in her former weekend home full-time. It was easier to maintain the property. She had plenty of outdoor space to entertain and even had enough room to house one of her sons and his wife in a cottage on the property, which had a separate office so they could work from home.
Eaton is “no less enchanted” by her life in the North Bay and plans to keep her home there, but she did begin to miss all the aspects of city living that she just couldn’t get in a more rural environment. By last fall, she began looking for a condo in San Francisco, even though most of the city’s amenities were still closed.
“Even without theaters, museums and indoor dining, it proved difficult to be away from a favorite bakery, coffee shop and takeout,” she said. “To walk to a close neighborhood grocery store and have quick access to medical facilities and airports were conveniences we missed.”
Eaton considered moving back to the East Bay, but she said with her office in the city and carpools less appealing since the pandemic, she didn’t want to deal with a long commute. A San Francisco home also helped her get closer to meetings in Silicon Valley.
“Ultimately, we were ready for an even more convenient location and denser urban core,” Eaton said, adding that many of her fellow “urban transplants” in Sonoma are following a similar path. One even recently bought a second condo in the city, she said.
Lower-income Gen Z renters have also been returning to the city in recent months, according a recent survey from RENTCafe.
They’re driven by a desire to lock in lower rents on bigger apartments in nicer neighborhoods before they return to out-of-reach levels. Top among the renters’ desired amenities, in addition to more indoor space, is a private open-air area such as a balcony or patio.
For the city’s condo developers, the return of these self-imposed exiles is a relief. Many developments were in the permitting and construction stages for years before sales teams began marketing their properties and were caught unawares by the sudden drop in interest during the pandemic. Yet, even in the downturn, some remained confident that their buyers would be back.
“There was a lot of uncertainty during the pandemic when people were leaving major metropolitan cities like San Francisco and New York City. We committed to staying the course and adapting to our new normal, knowing that homeowners would return,” said Steve Buster of Grosvenor Americas, which developed Crescent, Nob Hill’s first new major residential community in decades. “Sure enough, we’re now seeing a steady return to office life and city activity, and sales interest at Crescent has reflected that.”
Buster said that about 50 percent of the buyers for Crescent’s luxury 44-unit building are San Franciscans who left during the pandemic and are now coming back. Some didn’t even go as far as Napa before developing a serious case of FOMO.
“We’re speaking with a couple who moved from San Francisco to San Mateo thinking they wanted more space and suburbanity. They are now returning after realizing it wasn’t the right fit and they missed city life,” he said.
He estimates that half of the owners at Crescent plan to split their time between the country and the city and have the best of both worlds, especially as the now-annual fall fire season has turned the city into a sanctuary from threats big and small.
“We’re seeing a serious uptick in demand from homebuyers hailing from nearby areas like the East Bay, Napa and Sonoma, Marin County and Santa Cruz. These people are seeking a city footprint for easier weekday access to their offices, a respite from the commute and a refuge from the effects of Northern California wildfire season,” Buster said. “As these individuals and families are often displaced from their homes for safety measures for weeks or months during fires, or left without internet or power, owning a home at Crescent provides them with a safe nest in a newly minted, high-quality building amid all the modern conveniences, amenities and services that a world-class city offers.”