Big Cities to Small Cities: Looking Beyond the Stats

Perhaps people are just looking for something different: A slower pace, fewer distractions, wide open spaces or an opportunity to bond with people and places that have a deeper meaning beyond just proximity to work.  

According to a study by the Economic Innovation Group, 2021 was the first time in 50 years that counties with an urban center and more than 250,000 people experienced negative growth as a category — and it’s a trend which continued unabated into 2022. So where are all these people heading? Let’s look at the top 10 U.S. cities people are moving into, based on percentages revealed in the United Van Lines Annual 2022 National Movers Study: 

  • Wilmington, NC: 81%  
  • Bellingham, WA: 73.2% 
  • Santa Fe, NM: 73%  
  • Myrtle Beach, SC: 72%  
  • Punta Gorda, FL: 71.6%  
  • Flagstaff, AZ: 71.4% 
  • Sarasota-Bradenton, FL: 71%  
  • State College, PA: 70%  
  • Eugene-Springfield, OR: 69%  
  • Fort Myers-Cape Coral, FL: 69%  

One thing is immediately obvious: The greatest inbound traffic is happening not in traditional urban centers in the west and northeastern U.S., but in what are called “secondary cities.” These smaller, less densely populated towns and regions are experiencing a period of exceptional growth right now driven by a variety of factors, including those below.  

Back to Nature and Nurture 

Traditionally, younger people were attracted to large cities, where they could establish their careers, explore diverse cultural and nightlife options, and “spread their wings” far away from small-town limitations. A notable trend revealed by our study was that even this demographic is moving to areas of the country with access to wide, open spaces and natural (particularly coastal) beauty. In fact, according to our study, people of all ages are moving closer to their families (35%) choosing places away from major urban centers and basing their move preferences increasingly on personal versus professional reasons.  

The Pandemic and Its Impact 

According to our 2022 study, the pandemic was not only a factor behind the migration to smaller towns in the South and West — it also appears to have stalled growth in the biggest cities. This is backed up by the results of a new report from the US. Census Bureau, which revealed that New York lost almost 328,000 residents, followed by metropolitan Los Angeles with almost 176,000, San Francisco with more than 116,000 and greater Chicago with more than 91,000 leaving between 2020 and 2021. Recent Census Bureau estimates show the pandemic’s impact to be even more profound, with unprecedented losses across 88 U.S. cities with populations above 250,000. 

Affordability and Finances 

With the rental for a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment now hovering around $5,200 and the median listing home price in San Francisco now upwards of $1.3 million, it’s no wonder that people are heading toward smaller towns and suburbs where they can get more for their money. 

According to our study, of the top 25 outbound counties and cities, six were in New Jersey, four were in New York and three were in California. High state taxes, soaring real estate prices and a high cost of living were key reasons why there was a significant shift toward smaller cities and towns. This is particularly true among retirees, who flocked to cities in states like Florida and Maine. 

The New Work Paradigm 

Over the last two years, many employers have established new remote working policies that can also help account for the high number of moves way from major cities and urban areas. After all, many jobs don’t require coming into work every day, prompting people to forgo long commutes and opt for places where they can enjoy a better quality of life and lower cost of living.  

TIME named working from home its “Trend of the Year,” while research from Gallup shows that only two in 10 remote-capable employees are currently working fully on-site. While it’s probably too early to assess remote work’s permanent impact on people’s moving decisions, for the time being it is a large incentive for people interested in moving from densely populated cities to secondary or suburban markets where commuting to work is no longer necessary. 

Ready to learn more? Delve deeper into our  2022 Annual National Movers Studyand explore tips for settling into your new home of choice on our blog.  

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