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Migration Data Reveals 1 Reason People Move and Surprisingly It's Not COVID

Data from moving company United Van Lines shows why and where people moved in 2021. The top reasons and destinations are somewhat surprising.

January 5, 2022
January 5, 2022
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Between low interest rates, the ability to work remotely, and pent-up pandemic cash, 2021 offered ideal conditions for many Americans to pick up and move. And that’s exactly what they did in a record-breaking year for the housing market.

For 45 years, moving company United Van Lines has been tracking migration patterns using internal data and customer surveys. The 2021 survey provides a snapshot of how the pandemic changed everyday life and where people choose to live.

It also gives us a glimpse of what to expect as the pandemic begins its third year in 2022.

What motivated people to move in 2021?

The pandemic not only changed where people are moving, but why they’re moving. Most notably, moving closer to family has become more common in recent years. In 2021, nearly a third of Americans (31.8%) that moved did so to be closer to family.

Family nearly eclipsed work opportunities as the top driver of interstate migration in 2021. Last year, 32.5% of Americans cited a new job or job transfer as their top reason for moving, down from more than 60% in 2015. Even after the steep downgrade, work opportunities remain the top reason to move.

“As the pandemic continues to impact our day-to-day, we’re seeing that lifestyle changes — including the increased ability to work from home — and wanting to be closer to family are key factors in why Americans are moving today,” Eily Cummings, director of corporate communications at United Van Lines, said.

The pandemic itself had less of a direct impact on migration in 2021 than it did in 2020. Just 9.1% of movers said COVID impacted their decision in November 2021. That’s down from a peak of 20.2% in October 2020.

Other top reasons for moving include retirement, lifestyle change, health/personal reasons, and cost of living. Here are the top five states for inbound traffic for each reason to move.

Top states to move to for retirement:

  1. Florida
  2. South Carolina
  3. Arizona
  4. Delaware
  5. Idaho

Top states to move to for a lifestyle change:

  1. Idaho
  2. Florida
  3. Maine
  4. Colorado
  5. Montana

Top states to move to for health/personal reasons:

  1. New Jersey
  2. Illinois
  3. New York
  4. Michigan
  5. Arizona

Top states to move to for cost of living:

  1. South Carolina
  2. Tennessee
  3. Wyoming
  4. Delaware
  5. Idaho

Top moving destinations of 2021

United Van Lines tracks migration the rate of inbound and outbound moving shipments from states and metropolitan statistical areas. With 74% of movers headed into the state, Vermont had the highest percentage of inbound shipments in 2021.

Florida had the highest number of inbound shipments with 13,201, which made up 62% of the state’s total 21,179 shipments in 2021.

In general, people sought out less-populated states to move to in 2021. In the map below, blue represents higher inbound moving traffic while yellow represents higher outbound moving traffic.


Top 10 states by percentage of inbound moving shipments

State Top reason for coming Inbound shipments  Inbound % VermontJob30774%South DakotaFamily30769%South CarolinaRetirement3,48463%West VirginiaJob28263%FloridaRetirement13,20162%AlabamaJob1,69262%TennesseeJob3,72062%OregonJob2,03861%IdahoFamily98061%Rhode IslandJob52759% Data from United Van Lines

Zooming in to the metropolitan level, Medford-Ashland, Ore. emerged as the top moving destination with 83% of the metro’s 101 shipments coming inbound. Small and medium sized metro areas dominated the top 10 as movers looked for more space and affordability.

Top 10 metro areas by percentage of inbound moving shipments

Metro area  Total shipments  Inbound % Medford-Ashland, Ore.10183%Punta Gorda, Fla.21381%Wilmington, N.C.49480%Eugene-Springfield, Ore.12079%Sarasota-Bradenton, Fla.1,49679%Sioux Falls, S.D.13278%Fort Myers-Cape Coral, Fla.95177%Myrtle Beach, S.C.44076%Santa Fe, N.M.56176%Bellingham, Wash.16472% Data from United Van Lines

Areas with most outbound moving traffic in 2021

Inbound moving shipments didn’t appear out of thin air. In general, outbound moving traffic came from major cities and densely-populated coastal areas.

With 71% of moving traffic headed out of the state, New Jersey remained the top state for outbound traffic for the fourth consecutive year. California had the most moving traffic of any state with 26,711 total shipments and the highest number of outbound moving shipments with 15,836 (59%).

At a glance, people moving out of big cities and coastal areas were most motivated by family, while those moving from inland areas were more motivated by job prospects.

Top 10 states by percentage of outbound moving shipments

State Top reason for leaving Outbound shipments  Outbound % New JerseyRetirement3,77071%IllinoisFamily6,18167%New YorkFamily5,71463%ConnecticutFamily1,73460%CaliforniaFamily15,83659%MichiganJob2,72758%MassachusettsJob2,98458%LouisianaJob1,43657%OhioJob3,59856%NebraskaJob95356% Data from United Van Lines

The list of metropolitan areas with the highest outbound traffic is dominated by dense coastal cities in New York, New Jersey, and California which became less desirable and affordable during the pandemic.

Metro area  Total shipments  Outbound % Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y. (Long Island)1,32779%Hagerstown, Md.15777%Santa Cruz-Watsonville, Cali.21776%Bergen-Passaic, N.J.85676%Binghamton, N.Y.13275%Newark, N.J.1,34674%Joliet, Ill.45774%Poughkeepsie (Dutchess), N.Y.18273%Middlesex-Somerset-Hunterdon, N.J.87772%Springfield, Ill.17072% Data from United Van Lines

What remains to be seen is how much staying power there is in pandemic moving trends. Will inland migration subside as pandemic concerns (eventually) wane and housing costs stabilize? Or is this the emergence of a "new normal" that will long outlast the pandemic?

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