It’s a rite of passage for many parents in the spring — the kids are getting older, maybe starting kindergarten or moving up to middle or high school, and it’s time to move houses in order to access a better school. Except with the current state of the housing market, they may not be going anywhere this year.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had a difficult housing market for buyers and sellers in the peak season, but the situation now is unusually bad. Essentially freezing homeowner parents in place will have consequences that spillover into communities — both the ones that people are unable to leave, and the ones they’re unable to join.

A sign announces a home for sale on Munjoy Hill, Wednesday, Jan. 25, in Portland. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Many parents decide where they want to live based on the schools available in an area. And some move more than once for that reason. Maybe a couple bought a before they had kids, when they weren’t even thinking about what school district they were in. Some people may have taken advantage of remote work to move to a new state without familiarizing themselves with the school systems there. Or maybe they’re happy with their elementary or middle school but not the high school.

I can attest from personal experience that this is particularly common in a transplant-heavy metro area like Atlanta, where socioeconomics, politics, race, sports and geography (nobody wants a 45-minute drive to the private school that accepted them) all influence the educational priorities of parents.

But two huge factors will prevent parents from moving for schools this spring. The first by now is well understood: So many homeowners have the “golden handcuffs” of a low mortgage rate they don’t want to give up. Last March, 30-year mortgage rates had just crossed over the 4% level. Now we’re looking at rates around 7%. For the hypothetical homeowner who would have to trade a 3% mortgage rate for a 7% one, that would mean an extra $16,000 in costs a year on a $400,000 mortgage — and that doesn’t account for the costs of moving.

The second factor that’s something of a surprise is just how bad the inventory situation remains for would-be home buyers. According to Altos Research, there was another big drop in the available inventory of homes for sale last week, with the fewest number of single-family homes for sale since the middle of last June. And while there’s no way to tease this out of the aggregated data, I would bet the situation is even worse in neighborhoods zoned for the most highly rated schools, or that have desirable private and charter schools.


Most families that would like to move for schools this year will find that a 7% mortgage rate makes the finances too difficult — but even if they could make it work, there is nothing available to buy.

I’ve written about how the lack of resale inventory makes home builders more important in terms of creating more inventory, but this isn’t a near-term solution and that construction isn’t necessarily happening in communities with highly regarded, well-established schools.

This lack of churn will pose headaches both for “departure” and “destination” communities. Schools have to budget and plan based on enrollment projections, and some schools that are used to getting an influx of kindergartners, sixth-graders or ninth-graders will find that they undershot their numbers because would-be enrollees couldn’t find housing. Similarly, some schools that are used to losing families after a certain grade will find that their fourth- or fifth-grade classes are bigger than they expected.

Parents who find themselves unexpectedly trapped in a school they don’t like should make the best of it. They can get more involved in the school to push for the education they want for their kids. That might bring some additional headaches for principals and administrators if they get more parents clamoring for change, but it also might hasten improvement.

It will be an interesting dynamic to watch play out. Homeowner same-house tenure has nearly doubled since the mid-2000s, from 6.5 years to more than 13 at the peak in 2020. Presumably, a lot of that is due to baby boomers who have been aging in place after buying homes between the late 1990s and mid-2000s. But until mortgage rates come down or housing inventory improves, we might find a lot of homeowner parents in their 30s and 40s unexpectedly being frozen in place. And if you can’t go where you want to be, then you’ve got to just make the best of where you are.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is founder of Peachtree Creek Investments.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.