Top reasons Americans relocate

Shifting trend lines are good news for homebuilders, analysis finds

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When I was a young man, I moved often. Then I found a good job, got married, and children quickly followed. I stopped moving. That job is long gone, the kids are grown up and living elsewhere, but I’m still married to the same person and haven’t moved in decades.

Apparently, I’m a rare bird, because Americans like to move. More than 40 million of us move every year and we have been changing residences at that rate at least as far back as the 1990s.

While the propensity to go from one home to another doesn’t change much, others patterns regularly shift: in particular, where we go, where we leave and why we are going.

For many years now, the main outbound migration region in the United States was the Great Lakes area. That has changed. According to the United Van Lines 35th annual migration study, the Northeast is now the place most people leave.

On a state-by-state basis, Illinois and Michigan still captured high rankings in terms of outbound traffic, but those states have been joined by New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine.

Where do people go once they leave their homes in places like the Northeast? According to United Van Lines, the highest ranking inbound location was Washington, D.C. Politically, you can either view this as a further concentration of the federal government or that many politicos who fled the capital during the Bush years are coming back for the Obama presidency.

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Two Southern states with a high percentage of inbound migration were North Carolina and Florida, while two Western states high on the inbound list were Oregon and Nevada.

Florida and Nevada were two of the states most devastated by the recession and subsequent foreclosure crisis. Homes are now so cheap people can’t wait to go back to these sunny locations.

United Van Lines isn’t the only mover with surveys. Penske Truck Rental data mined its moving data and found the top 10 one-way truck rental destinations included seven southern-tier cities: Atlanta, Phoenix, Orlando, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Sarasota and Charlotte; two Western cities: Denver and Seattle; and one Midwest locale: Chicago.

As with the appearance of Florida and Nevada in the United Van Lines survey, a strong group of recession-busted cities turn up on the Penske report — Atlanta, Phoenix, Orlando and Sarasota — once again proving that cheap home prices in a sunny location is a very strong allure.

OK, we now know where people are leaving and where they are going, so that leaves the big question: Why is everyone moving about, hither and yon?

For that, I turned to Chris Porter, manager at John Burns Real Estate Consulting Inc., who plumbed census data to try to determine the reasons behind relocations and if trend lines have shifted since the onset of the Great Recession.

For "owner" households, the reasons for moving are lumped into four major categories: family-related, work-related, housing-related, and the catch-all group, "other," which clumps together divergent responses such as: finish college; seeking a change of climate; health reasons; and even natural disasters.

For some strange reason, I always assumed people mostly move for work reasons, i.e., job relocation, but I never really thought it through. Up until the recession, people just moved because they wanted a bigger and better house — and financing was cheap. So, by far, the major reasons why people move are all housing-related.

I suppose if statisticians and economists followed this data and knew what they were looking at, they could probably have predicted the coming housing blow-up, because from 2001 to 2003, housing-related reasons for moving kept climbing until they almost reached 60 percent of all reasons people listed for moving. Then, in 2004, the numbers started to slide until 2010, the year in which this motivation almost fell to below 40 percent. There was a slight comeback in 2011.

"It’s more critical than ever before, given the state of the economy and housing market, to have an understanding of why people move," Porter said. "We’re seeing a shift to a higher percentage of moves based on needs as opposed to wants. The kind of home someone might consider for a move based on needs is going to differ from the type of home based on wants."

Porter breaks the housing-related data into five subcategories, with the most popular espoused reasons, in descending order, being: wanted own home, not rent; wanted new or better home/apartment; wanted better neighborhood/less crime; wanted cheaper housing; or other housing reason.

Here’s where the data gets interesting — again. Starting in 2001, the most popular reason (almost 50 percent of responses) why people moved was because they wanted to own their home, not rent. That response continued to decline until it reached a temporary bottom of about 33 percent in 2007, then jumped back a bit for a few years, and finally the response hit a new low in 2011.

On the other hand, from 2001 through 2008, less than 10 percent of respondents cited cheaper housing as a reason for moving. In 2010 and 2011, more than 10 percent responded with that motivation for moving.

This trend line clearly suggests people are moving because rents exceed mortgage payments in many markets around the country.

Also, to follow Porter’s line of thinking, this information can be important to the folks who are thinking about new residential construction.

"Homebuilders want to maximize profits when selling a home or designing a community," Porter said. "When you see an increasing share of buyers say they are moving for affordability reasons, a builder should take that into consideration."

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, "Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis," is now available for sale on Amazon.com.

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