The year 2020 transformed the way people live at home, and the circumstances of COVID-19 had a clear influence on what home buyers in Manitoba want to get out of their living space.

A new survey from the Manitoba Real Estate Association and pollsters Probe Research Inc., asked a randomized sample of 1,000 adults which amenities they would prioritize if they found themselves looking for a new place to live, and how those priorities have shifted as a result of the pandemic.

The answers are not shocking, but they are telling, and could have implications on home-buying trends in the coming months and years as the world continues to readjust to a pandemicized world.

Nearly half (48 per cent) of all respondents said having a space for exercise and recreation at home was a higher priority now than before the pandemic, the biggest priority shift in the poll. Having a yard became more important to 45 per cent of respondents, while having extra room(s) for home offices and being in close proximity to parks and greenspace became more chief concerns for 44 per cent of the sample.

"A lot of these have always been important," said the 2021 Manitoba Real Estate Association president Stewart Elston, an alternate broker with Powell Property Group. "Now, they’ve been rated as more important."

To Elston, that came as no surprise: when buying a detached house or a condo, certain must-haves are always on the list — location, proximity to bus routes, a garage or dedicated parking space, curb appeal, to name a few — but those usual suspects now have competition from a list of features which have received a boost in value from the pandemic and its impact on day-to-day life.

Gyms, pools, and yoga studios are closed, and when they’ve been open, have struggled to recapture their clientele, triggering a boom in home workout equipment sales and outdoor solo sports. While some employees have no choice but to go in to work at factories, hospitals, retail outlets, and restaurants, the pandemic has ushered in an era of stay-at-home, remote work that appears here to stay for the short-term, and possibly long-term, future. The pandemic has also boosted the appeal of parks and greenspace, which offer free and accessible recreation opportunities, and when gathering is allowed, an option for distanced community activity.

"These results pretty much verified what we’ve been seeing in the marketplace," Elston said.

A new survey suggests that house buyers are interested in homes that have exercise rooms since the COVID-19 pandemic forced most gyms to shut down or strictly limit attendance. (Frank Franklin II / The Associated Press files)</p>

A new survey suggests that house buyers are interested in homes that have exercise rooms since the COVID-19 pandemic forced most gyms to shut down or strictly limit attendance. (Frank Franklin II / The Associated Press files)

These priorities also shift when assessing the current living spaces of the survey’s respondents: those who live in multi-family buildings — which could be apartments, condos, duplexes, triplexes, and more — tended to even further prioritize recreation space and park access, as well as proximity to shops and amenities.

Renters, who on average have less space than homeowners, and specifically apartment dwellers, prioritized those elements even more. Probe found around 60 per cent of those respondents found recreation space more important than before, as compared with 45 per cent of homeowners. Renters also placed higher priority on greenspace (54 per cent) than did homeowners (42 per cent).

One element seemingly lower on the must-have list is proximity to the (traditional) workplace, the survey found. Elston said that’s historically been a key selling point for many buyers, but the survey found 11 per cent of respondents felt being close to work or where you go to school was a lower priority — more than any other criterion.

That does make sense: the survey responses were collected between Nov. 24 and Dec. 4, at a time when remote work has become the norm for many and when remote learning is the only method available for most university students. (The survey was conducted over the telephone through modified random digit dialing, and can be said with 95 per cent certainty that the results are within 3.1 percentage points of what they’d have been had the entire population been surveyed).

While the survey results offer a timestamp of buyer preferences, what will be more telling is if the priorities prevail in a post-COVID world. Even if places like gyms and offices reopen, will patrons and employees return willfully, or will they prefer to continue using their home spaces?

If these priorities last, that could instigate homeowners to reassess their needs, potentially leading to more houses becoming available on the market, which has been a key concern in Winnipeg’s real estate sector over the last year. A lack of available stock led to a seller’s market developing, with homes selling significantly above the list price consistently, with multiple-offer situations occurring with great frequency. (It was a record year for home sales in the city, with several consecutive months of record-setting sales activity nonetheless).

The increase in availability is also very important if homeowners and renters who do not currently have access to the spaces and amenities they want would like a change of scenery.

Elston said it’s tough to predict what 2021 will herald for the city’s and province’s housing markets, but he does anticipate a move back toward a buyer’s market, emphasized by interest rates which remain historically low. Homeowners who might have held off selling last year could also move off the fence and list their properties as confidence in the pandemic’s easement increases.

But Elston said the priorities established in the survey give added value to considerations that for many buyers and renters were already important to begin with.

"If someone’s selling a home with a big yard, a fancy deck, and an exercise room, plus an office space, next door to a park, a place like that would already sell at a premium," he said. "What was attractive in a house to begin with, has only become more attractive now."

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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