They Bought Homes Far From Work, but Are Being Called Back. Now What?

  • Remote work gave people the opportunity to move away from their employer’s physical location.
  • Some companies are walking back remote-work policies causing panic for homebuyers who moved away.
  • One person Insider spoke with stays with his parents during the week, while another sold at a loss.

David Highbarger bought a house in Florida’s panhandle in January 2022 to be closer to family.

Before remote work became the norm during the pandemic, Highbarger, 56, had always felt the need to live in a tech hub given his career as a kind of business consultant called an Agile coach.

He had previously lived in the Bay Area and Seattle, and most recently in the budding tech hub of Raleigh, North Carolina, where he left in 2021 for Florida.

Three months ago, Highbarger took a new job with the understanding that he would be remote.

Three weeks ago, the company asked him to work from the office in the northeastern region of Florida. The kicker: It’s a five-hour drive from his new home in Freeport.

“I’ve openly said I can’t do it,” Highbarger told Insider. “I did feel a little bit blindsided about this.”

Highbarger is not the only person experiencing this sudden shift in employer expectations about where they work. An increasing share of employees who have taken jobs with promised work-from-home benefits and moved away are facing a similar bind as they’re called back to office.

With mortgage rates far from what they were two years ago, some employees are facing the decision to take a loss on their new homes in a slower market, come up with creative ways to show face at work, or even quit.

Insider spoke with three people who are expected to work from home indefinitely and purchased homes in remote-friendly locales about getting called back to the office, how it will affect them financially, and how they plan to move forward.

He won’t drive five hours to the office, and he won’t sell his house

During the interview process, Highbarger’s future employer asked him to locate and name the closest office to him. It was just an administrative thing, he said he was told, so he didn’t think anything of it.

Headshot of David Highbarger

Highbarger purchased a home in Florida five hours away from his company’s nearest office.

David Highbarger

Highbarger bought a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Freeport, Florida, for $520,000 in January 2022. His goal in leaving Raleigh, where he sold his previous home in December 2021, is to plant roots in the Florida panhandle near his family.

“If I’m going to spend $500,000 on a house, that means I’m somewhat committed to the area,” he said.

A daily five-hour drive across the state to the nearest office is hardly a consideration for Highbarger.

He would, however, consider going to the office once a week if his employer faced the cost for a hotel.

But one thing he won’t do is move.

Panama City Beach, Florida

Highbarger moved to the Florida panhandle to be closer to family.

Valeri Clincy/EyeEm/Getty Images

“I moved here for my relatives,” he said. “Being remote freed me to live anywhere in the US — maybe anywhere in the world. I would not consider selling this house.”

A pharmacist was asked to return to California after moving to Oregon

Jamie Sexton tried to escape the high San Diego rents and home prices by buying a house farther north — way farther north.

Sexton, 44, purchased a home in Salem, Oregon, in March 2022 for $375,000. Before deciding to buy out of the state, she paid $4,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in California. But by January 2023, less than a year after closing on her house in Oregon, the pharmacist was asked to return to San Diego.

Salem, Oregon, at night.

Sexton bought a house in Salem, Oregon, when he thought he could work remotely indefinitely. Now she’s being called back to San Diego.

halbergman/Getty Images

“For the moment, my job is still remote,” Sexton told an Insider in February. “But the indication we were given a few weeks ago is that we are going to come back on-site.”

Sexton planned for the possibility of a quick sale in Oregon in case she didn’t like Salem, but she was also banking on the red hot real-estate market that she purchased in continuing.

“At the time, the market was so crazy. Everything was selling,” she said of March 2022. “I thought, ‘Well if I buy it and I don’t like it, I can always resell it.’ But that market really stopped.”

With the looming call to return to work in San Diego, Sexton decided to list the home in June 2022 for $410,000 — $35,000 more than he paid. She received offers well below that, with the highest offer as of February being $330,000 and the lowest being $300,000.

“I’m not in the position where I can take a big loss on it,” she said.

According to Zillow, Sexton ended up accepting an offer for $369,000 — a $6,000 loss on the purchase price. She’s closing this month and returning to San Diego.

With his higher country home mortgage, he can’t afford a city rental

Adrian Lawrence, an accountant in London, England, said it’s common to rent a small apartment in the city while your primary residence is outside the city limits. That’s what he did before the pandemic.

Lawrence, 50, rented a two-bedroom apartment in London that he stayed in during the week and returned to his home in the country for the weekends. The median rent in the city of London is £1,475, or about $1,745, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Colorful townhomes in London, England.

Lawrence used to rent a two-bedroom flat in London, but can no longer afford it now that he’s taken out a mortgage for a country home.

Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

When work-from-home ordinances became the norm, Lawrence decided to buy a bigger home for his wife and three children. He spent £450,000 on a five-bedroom home three hours away from London.

Headshot of Adrian Lawrence

Lawrence stays with his parents five days out of the week instead of commuting three hours one way.

Adrian Lawrence

“What COVID actually allowed me to do was get rid of the rented apartment and move to a bigger house,” Lawrence told Insider. “People were not buying and selling houses at that time, so I was able to get a really good price and it suited me and the family to upgrade to a bigger living area.”

Lawrence has now been called back to the office. With a higher mortgage than before, he can no longer afford to rent in London.

“Now I can’t afford to rent a property like that,” he said. “I could get a shared room in a house, but that’s not ideal.”

Lawrence returns to the office in January 2023 and stays with his parents in London during the week.

“It’s not ideal for a mature gentleman to have to spend time at the parents’ house when you’ve got a family and kids of your own,” he said.

“I’m sort of stuck in that situation where it’s a burden for me to rent and it’s a burden for me to travel.”