By Clara-Laeila Laudette, Silvio Castellanos and Elena Rodriguez
MADRID (Reuters) - Thirty-one-year-old Ines Alcolea ditched the bustling life of Madrid in October for a village near the much quieter medieval town of Toledo, unable to face the prospect of more COVID-19 restrictions in her small flat in the Spanish capital.
"At least here, if there's another lockdown we'll have more space, a garden. It'll be lighter," Alcolea said, sitting in her new home surrounded by boxes and her two cats.
She is paying half the rent she used to for nearly twice the space, and has a rooftop terrace thrown in.
The COVID-19 crisis was the tipping point for the video game communications expert and other Spanish millennials already struggling to find good accommodation in a tight real estate market in the capital and other major cities.
"We realised our quality of life would never improve as long as we lived in Madrid ... and our landlord wouldn't lower the rent despite the crisis," said Alcolea, who had been living in the working-class area of Vallecas, targeted by tougher restrictions than the rest of the region.
Squeezed by years of rising rent and high youth unemployment that got worse with the pandemic, young Spaniards are especially vulnerable to the current economic crisis. On average, they buy their first house ten years later than other Europeans.
"Young people are the most hurt by this crisis," said a spokeswoman for online property portal Fotocasa.
She added that many young people at first disappeared from the real estate market with the pandemic, before coming back to look more actively than other age groups for a change of scene.
That shows with rooms in flatshares - usually occupied by students and young professionals - whose availability spiked 203% in Madrid between March and October and doubled in Barcelona over the same period, data from property portal Idealista show.
One of those making that change was 25-year-old dental hygienist Jennifer Delgado.
After years of living in flatshares in Madrid, Delgado and her girlfriend moved back to her home region of the Canary Islands a few months into the pandemic.
They now rent a flat in central Tenerife, boasting a guest bedroom and office, for 600 euros a month - less than a third of what it would cost in the capital.
"I was tired of working 24/7, tired of Madrid, where the quality of life is so low because you essentially live to pay (bills)," said Delgado, for whom another confinement without seeing her family was out of the question.
COVID-19 also prompted 33-year-old communications specialist Jara Exposito to re-evaluate the small first-floor one-bedroom property she and her husband bought three years ago.
The couple are selling, hoping to buy a plot of land and build a house in the countryside north of Madrid.
"The confinement triggered that final click in our minds ... made everybody reconsider what mattered to them - and for me, a house was one of them," Exposito said.
Some are in a rush.
Alejandro Diaz was so keen to leave Madrid that last month he bought a wooden show house in the mountains of Guadalix de la Sierra as soon as he visited it, rather than wait for a new house to be built for him.
"Having to work remotely led me to reconsider what I needed: a place outside Madrid, with more space, separate rooms," the 34-year-old solar power engineer said.
(Writing by Clara-Laeila Laudette; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Mike Collett-White)