THE BLOG
09/12/2014 05:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Where Americans Are Moving

Three times as many people moved from Los Angeles to Houston, and from New York to West Palm Beach, as the other way around. Most movers are toward counties with lower density, lower unemployment, and cheaper housing.

Last week, the Census released new data on how many people moved between counties in the U.S. from 2008 to 2012.

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We've analyzed the data at both the county and metro level, combining it with data on home prices, unemployment, density, and distance. (We focused on domestic moves, but the Census also reported moves from abroad.) There are a million ways to look at these data, but here are the three themes that stood out to us:

1. Most Moves are Short-Distance
Nearly half - 49 percent -- of between-county moves are less than 100 miles (see note). Most of these, in fact, are very short moves: 38 percent of between-county moves are less than 50 miles. Another quarter are 100-500 miles, and the remaining quarter are more than 500 miles. Remember that these are among between-county moves only, not within-county moves, which are two-thirds of all domestic moves.

People who move ("movers" from now on) to expensive, central counties like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Manhattan tend to come from farther away than movers to more affordable, more residential counties like Contra Costa (north and east of Oakland), San Bernardino (east of Los Angeles), and the Bronx -- who often come from a neighboring expensive county.

While the typical mover into Manhattan comes from 67 miles away, the typical mover into the Bronx comes from just 13 miles away -- often from Manhattan, in fact. Movers into San Francisco come from 223 miles away, on average, compared with 31 miles among movers into Contra Costa County. Movers into Los Angeles come from 290 miles away, but movers into San Bernardino come from 56 miles away.

2. Top Moves Favor the Suburbs and the Sunbelt The top between-county moves are all short-distance within a region or metro. Of the top 10 between-county moves, in fact, seven are among the large counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino in southern California. Los Angeles to Orange and the reverse move, Orange to Los Angeles, are #1 and #3, respectively:
Top 10 Between-County Moves
# From To Region or metro # of Movers
1 Los Angeles, CA Orange, CA Southern California 40,760
2 Los Angeles, CA San Bernardino, CA Southern California 38,495
3 Orange, CA Los Angeles, CA Southern California 31,676
4 Los Angeles, CA Riverside, CA Southern California 25,575
5 Miami-Dade, FL Broward, FL South Florida 23,952
6 San Bernardino, CA Los Angeles, CA Southern California 23,181
7 Wayne, MI Oakland, MI Detroit 22,937
8 San Bernardino, CA Riverside, CA Southern California 22,705
9 Cook, IL DuPage, IL Chicago 20,476
10 Riverside, CA San Bernardino, CA Southern California 19,761
Note: differences in number of movers may not be statistically significant.
With the exception of the three moves that are the reverse flow of a higher-ranked move (Orange to LA at #3; San Bernardino to LA at #6; and Riverside to San Bernardino at #10), all of the 10 top between-county moves are from a higher-density county to a lower-density county. In other words, to a less urban, more suburban county. For longer-distances, we look at metro-to-metro moves. The top five between-metro moves of more than 100 miles (which excludes, for instance, the big move from Los Angeles to Riverside-San Bernardino) are all within the Sunbelt and mostly within-state:
Top 5 Between-Metro Moves, 100+ Miles
# From To # of Movers
1 Houston, TX Austin, TX 13,865
2 Los Angeles, CA San Diego, CA 12,548
3 San Diego, CA Los Angeles, CA 10,811
4 Phoenix, AZ Tucson, AZ 10,573
5 Los Angeles, CA Las Vegas, NV 9,973
Note: differences in number of movers may not be statistically significant.
Looking at moves of 500 miles or more, four of the top five are from New York or Chicago to the South or West:
Top 5 Between-Metro Moves, 500+ Miles
# From To # of Movers
1 New York, NY Los Angeles, CA 8,467
2 New York, NY Atlanta, GA 7,278
3 Chicago, IL Phoenix, AZ 6,139
4 New York, NY Miami, FL 5,564
5 Los Angeles, CA New York, NY 5,451
Note: differences in number of movers may not be statistically significant.
For many of the most popular moves, the flow goes in both directions. Los Angeles to San Diego and San Diego to Los Angeles are both among the top moves over 100 miles; New York to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to New York are both among the top moves over 500 miles. But some of these movers are lopsided - that is, people are much more likely to move in one direction than the other. More than three times as many people move from Los Angeles to Houston, and from New York to West Palm Beach, than the other way around:
The Top 10 Most Lopsided Between-Metro Moves
# From To Movers in this direction per 100 movers in the reverse direction
1 Los Angeles, CA Houston, TX 339
2 New York, NY West Palm Beach, FL 323
3 Chicago, IL Bloomington-Normal, IL 312
4 Washington, DC Blacksburg, VA 262
5 New York, NY Albany, NY 230
6 Chicago, IL Phoenix, AZ 224
7 Cleveland, OH Columbus, OH 212
8 St. Louis, MO Columbia, MO 202
9 New York, NY Atlanta, GA 202
10 New York, NY Baltimore, MD 192
Note: among pairs of metros with at least 5000 total movers annually in both directions combined.
3. People Move Toward Lower Density, More Jobs, and Cheaper Housing Migration in America reveals some consistent patterns. A majority of between-county moves are people moving toward lower density, more jobs (i.e. lower unemployment), and lower home prices -- but not overwhelmingly so:
  • 107 people moved to counties with lower population density (relative to the county they left) for every 100 people who moved to counties with higher population density
  • 106 people moved to counties with a lower unemployment rate for every 100 people who moved to counties with a higher unemployment rate
  • 106 people moved to counties with lower housing costs (median asking price per square foot) for every 100 people who moved to counties with higher housing costs. Among people who moved between counties with more than a 25 percent difference in housing costs, 113 moved to lower-cost counties for every 100 who moved to higher-cost counties.
Why isn't migration more lopsided toward counties with more jobs and cheaper housing? Because there are lots of reasons people move, and many of them are personal, such as to be closer to (or farther away from!) family. Furthermore, because home prices vary neighborhood-to-neighborhood, people in search of more affordable housing can usually find it by moving within their county, and these Census data include only between-county moves.

Still, even with all the personal reasons people move, there are clear patterns to migration. Americans are moving toward lower density, more jobs, and cheaper housing -- which favor the suburbs and the Sunbelt.

Note: we calculated distances between pairs of counties and pairs of metros based on housing-unit tract-weighted centroids. For instance, even though Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties are next to each other, we calculate that the typical housing unit in LA county is 56 miles from the typical housing unit in San Bernardino county.