The Killer Commute

A less-than-stellar job market may be intensifying commuting challenges. Smart real estate pros are putting the issue front and center.

March 1, 2011

One of the first issues that Sam DeBord, managing broker at Coldwell Banker Danforth in Seattle, raises with buyers is their potential commute.

"We have a high percentage of relocating buyers in the Seattle market," he says. "Folks might have to make the ‘Microsoft commute’ over the State Route 520 floating bridge to Redmond—one of the toughest commutes in the area. We have to stress to home buyers that planning a commute can save hours of their life every day."

Seattle isn’t the only U.S. metro area with joy-killing commutes. While the mean home-to-work trek today is just 25 minutes, according to U.S. Census data released in December, the number of "extreme commutes"—those that consume more than 90 minutes each way—has grown by more than 80 percent since 1990 to 3.2 million.

Drive times are growing in part because consumers want less-expensive housing and are willing to commute further for a job, says Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America (Eno Foundation for Transportation, 1987) and an expert on travel behavior and transportation policy, in Falls Church, Va. "People affected by housing costs tend to go to the periphery of metro areas," Pisarski says.

You may not be able to reduce your area’s commute times, but you can educate buyers about the likely challenges and offer solutions. Buyers who cruise into a home purchase with their eyes wide open are likely to emerge happier with their choice.

Have Car, Will Travel

Extreme commutes aren’t new. However, they are growing—though perhaps not as rapidly as they would have without the economic challenges of the past decade. "We suffered the 9/11 catastrophe, increases in fuel prices, and then the big-time recession with its job losses," explains Pisarski. "Those things tend to moderate growth."

Yet, that doesn’t mean commutes are getting any easier. "I consider commutes over 60 minutes as problems, and those over 90 minutes are what the Census Bureau and I call ‘extreme,’" Pisarski says. "We’ve seen growth in those over-90-minute commutes in big metro areas around cities like New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C."

The number of people with commutes over 60 minutes rose from 6.7 million in 1990 to 10.4 million in 2009, according to Census data. And those with commutes greater than 90 minutes rose from about 1.76 million to 3.2 million during that 10-year span.

Pisarski recently talked with an extreme commuter in New York. The commuter, a time-share salesperson, came from Pennsylvania to New York every day. "There are large numbers of people like this who come into Manhattan from Pennsylvania," Pisarski says. "Even in Washington, D.C., we have people who come in from Pennsylvania."

These ultra-long commutes aren’t limited to urban areas, either. The head of human resources at a BMW factory in Spartanburg, S.C., told Pisarski that his 3,500 workers commute within a 75-mile radius of the plant.

Today’s tough job market is likely to keep pushing home owners toward more extreme commutes. "In this economy, people are willing to travel greater distances to get a good job—even to find any job," Pisarski says, adding that sluggish housing markets in some areas aren’t helping. "Historically, when we’ve had bad job markets, people would sell their house and move to a place where the job market was good. But if your house is underwater and you can’t move to where the jobs are, you’re much more locked in."

Because many house hunters don’t realize the commuting implications of their home search, proactive sales associates are talking about it from the get-go.

"When people come to us, one of the first things we ask is where they work and what’s their lifestyle," says Jeffrey Fritz, a sales associate at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Marina del Rey, Calif. "We’ll find that while it’s only 15 miles to the buyers’ destination, they don’t realize that’s an hour commute. They haven’t thought the process through and considered, ‘How long am I going to be in my car and away from my child or spouse?’"

DeBord says Seattle-area buyers will pay more for homes in neighborhoods near entrances to the crammed State Route 520 bridge. "If it saves people an hour to an hour-and-a-half in commuting each day," he says, "many are willing to pay for that."

Buyers’ Best Interest

Some sales associates are even tracking how future construction projects may affect commutes. "Since I’m licensed in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, I must be aware of the impact of transportation planning," says John Sullivan, a buyer’s agent at Buyers Edge Co. Inc. in Bethesda, Md. "Several years ago, a couple I was working with found an ideal property with what they thought was a workable commute. Had I not been aware of a construction project scheduled to start in a few months, they’d have been stuck with a commute that could have easily doubled."

Michael Kiefer, a sales associate at Phoenix Real Estate Solutions in Washington, D.C., even goes so far as to suggest that buyers consider whether to ditch their car altogether and apply their auto expenses to better-located housing. To make his point, he gives buyers certificates allowing them to try car-share companies like ZipCar and the city’s bike-sharing program.

The Maine Association of REALTORS® Foundation has even joined the fight against extreme commutes. Its "Live Where You Work" program, set up in cooperation with local lenders and started with the help of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ Ira Gribin Workforce Housing Grant program, offers buyers who work at least 30 miles from their job no-interest loans of up to $5,000 for down payment and closing costs when they purchase a home to reduce or eliminate their daily commute. The program has begun receiving applications, but no applicants have yet met all the program’s requirements.

Few real estate professionals have gotten as involved as Julie Vanderblue, a sales associate at The Higgins Group in Fairfield, Conn. She starts by educating buyers on their potential commute to Manhattan—including information on the expected wait to secure a parking spot at their train station. Vanderblue has also brokered sublease agreements between sellers and buyers for train station parking spaces, convinced sellers to offer buyers a driver to take them to their train station for as long as a year, and launched a seven-seat shuttle service that transports home owners to their local train station for about $15 per week (that barely covers Vanderblue’s costs). As a closing gift she’s given buyers folding bikes that can be left at a train station or taken on a commuter train. She has even done this when she represented the sellers in the transaction.

"I still have people say, ‘You’re the one who gives out free bikes,’" Vanderblue says. "I’m all about creative solutions to buyers’ commuting challenges."

On the Flip Side: Parking Crunches

Often, buyers who seek to avoid long commutes by living close to their job encounter their own dilemma: where to park in their close-in but densely populated neighborhood. While public transportation options tend to be greater in such areas, most buyers still have cars and need a place to park them.

There’s a constant push-pull between what consumers want and what city officials consider sound community planning, says transportation and demographics expert Alan Pisarski. "There’s a trend in the planning world to reduce parking spaces, trying to get the number down to 1.5 per housing unit," he says, "but house hunters tend to want more."

One sales associate who works to make her case with developers is Mabél Guzmán, ABR, president of business development and sales at Envision Real Estate in Chicago. Guzmán says she pesters developers to beef up parking in their projects, even if it means adding spaces outside the building or down the street. "We say, 'If you don’t have parking spaces, people will beat you up,'" explains Guzmán, who is 2011 president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. "Buyers will say, ‘You need to come down on your price and make it worth it for me to purchase your unit.’"