Would You Have Guessed These Were the Most (and Least) Popular Cities in 2020?

Check out the top most popular cities in 2021.

In our previous article, we discussed this year’s Annual Migration Study and shared information about migration across states in 2020. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at 2020 migration patterns at the city level.

2020’s Most Popular Areas* 

(MSA Definition: Metropolitan Service Area, an urban area with at least 50k people plus surrounding counties with at least 250 shipments in or out of the area.)

Top 25 Cities by Inbound %

Rank#MSA MarketOutbound %Inbound %
1Wilmington, NC21%79%
2Sarasota-Bradenton, FL22%78%
3Boise, ID25%75%
4Huntsville, AL30%70%
5Fort Myers-Cape Coral, FL31%69%
6Knoxville, TN33%67%
7Melbourne-Titusvle-Palm Bay FL34%66%
8Austin-San Marcos, TX35%65%
9Nashville, TN36%64%
10Fort Collins-Loveland, CO36%64%
11Charleston, SC36%64%
12Santa Fe, NM36%64%
13Charlotte-Gastonia, NC-SC37%63%
14Phoenix, AZ37%63%
15West Palm Beach-Boca Raton, FL38%63%
16Daytona Beach, FL38%62%
17Fayetteville-Springdale, AR39%61%
18Portland-Vancouver, OR-WA39%61%
19Seattle, WA39%61%
20Grand Rapids, MI39%61%
21Boulder-Longmont, CO42%58%
22Jacksonville, FL43%57%
23Orlando, FL43%57%
24Greensboro-Winston Salem, NC43%57%
25Tampa-St Pete-Clearwater, FL43%57%

*Included cities with more than 250 shipments.

Each year, people move for reasons such as retirement, a new career or an opportunity to be closer to family. In 2020, of course, COVID-19 also played a role. Here’s a closer look at what’s happening in some of these cities and how it may have impacted their standing on the 2020 list.

#1 Wilmington, North Carolina

Wilmington is a coastal city featuring a vibrant riverfront with shopping, dining, coffeehouses and a scenic riverfront along the coast of the Cape Fear River, and is surrounded by three island beaches. Considered to be four unique settings in one, it is easy to see the appeal of this area, especially during a mandated lockdown. According to bestplaces.net, the median home cost in Wilmington is $230,500. Plus, this area is consistently featured on lists ranking some of the top places to live, retire and raise a family.

#3 Boise, Idaho

The low cost of living, family-friendly activities, and a lively arts and culture scene make Boise quite the appeal for movers. It is located in the Pacific Northwest but lacks the price tag that comes along with some of the cities in neighboring states, like Seattle, San Francisco or Portland. Boise’s location is also ideal for those looking for year-round outdoor activities due to its mild winters and pleasant summers. According to extraspace.com, its median home price is $221,475 and the median monthly rent runs about $879 a month.

#4 Huntsville, Alabama

When you think of Alabama, a hub for technology or space may not be what comes to mind, but Huntsville is proving it should. It’s known as the Rocket City, not because it features a 363 foot tall rocket along the interstate or because of their popular space museum, but because of the  role the area played in getting America into space, well before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon. Over the last decade its population and growth have also rocketed, with the area expected to eclipse Birmingham, as Alabama’s biggest city in four or five years. With this kind of advancement, it is not hard to imagine why so many new businesses (like Mazda, Toyota and Facebook) are now calling this area home.

Tennessee – #6 Knoxville and #9 Nashville

Less than a three-hour drive separates these two top 10 Tennessee cities. According to neighborhoods.com, Nashville is 38 percent more expensive than Knoxville, and has a population difference of more than 500,000 people. However, if you’re looking for rich culture, history, great schools and a small-town feel, both cities rank highly in each category. With mountains as a backdrop and a great transit system, Knoxville wins in the transit department. But, if you’re looking to spend your time with an unprecedented nightlife and music scene, even during a pandemic, Nashville may be worth the extra cost.

The Floridas – 8 Cities

It’s no surprise to see so many Florida cities up and down our list. Weather, beaches and no income state tax – not to mention fewer pandemic restrictions, keeps Florida as a yearly top destination for retirement and change in lifestyle among movers. The top Florida city on the list, Sarasota-Bradenton, is known for its resort-city complex and has been a top resort and real estate investment area since the 1920s. For many close to retirement age or looking to escape to the beach while in lockdown, cities in Florida reign supreme.

Of course, with a top-cities list, we would be remiss to not also have a list featuring the bottom 25 cities for migration. Here is the list of cities that had the highest percentage of people moving out (outbound):

(MSA Definition: Metropolitan Service Area, an urban area with at least 50k people plus surrounding counties.)

Top 25 Cities by Outbound %

Rank#MSA MarketOutbound %Inbound %
25Monmouth-Ocean, NJ61%39%
24Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY61%39%
23Riverside-San Bernardino, CA61%39%
22New Haven-Waterbury-Meriden CT62%38%
21San Jose, CA62%38%
20Vallejo-Fairfield-Napa, CA63%37%
19Hartford-New Brit-Midltown, CT63%37%
18Worcester-Fitchbrg-Leomnstr MA64%36%
17Salinas-Seaside-Monterey, CA64%36%
16Oxnard-Ventura, CA64%36%
15Ann Arbor, MI65%35%
14Wichita, KS65%35%
13Corpus Christi, TX65%35%
12Joliet, IL67%33%
11Jersey City, NJ67%33%
10Lake, IL68%32%
9Middlesex-Somerset-Hunterdn NJ69%31%
8Bridgeprt-Stamfrd-Norwlk, CT69%31%
7Bremerton, WA69%31%
6Chicago, IL69%31%
5Newark, NJ72%28%
4New York, NY72%28%
3Trenton, NJ76%24%
2Bergen-Passaic, NJ81%19%
1Nassau-Suffolk, NY81%19%

*Included cities with more than 250 shipments.

Between COVID-19, wildfires, and the consistent yearly trend to flee big cities, it’s likely no coincidence that states like New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois have so many cities on this list.

New York/New Jersey – 9 Cities, including Bottom 5

New York and New Jersey are some of the most densely populated areas of the country and due to their location, these were two of the states hit the hardest by COVID-19. In fact, from March to August 2020, New York was the second-highest outbound state, (defined by the highest percentages of moves where COVID-19 was a contributing factor in leaving the state) on our list. According to the Washington Examiner, taxes also play a major role in migration.

#6 Chicago, Illinois

In an article from October of 2020, the Chicago Tribune, mentions “Chicago’s population has been on the decline for years, with the metropolitan area suffering some of the greatest losses of any major U.S. city. But new research suggests the pandemic might be exacerbating the exodus.” According to our data, Illinois ranked third in outbound states for 2020 (after ranking second in 2019). The most common reasons for leaving included a new job, retirement or to be closer to family. On our list, Illinois was ranked third in outbound states in 2020, with the most common reasons being for a new job, for retirement, or closer to family.

The Californias – 5 Cities

It is not uncommon to see California on this list as well. Last year’s study revealed a migration trend showing many moves from California to Texas. Top reasons included lower taxes, more affordable housing and lower cost of living. This past year, Texas was still the number one state Californians moved to, with Arizona, Washington, Nevada and Oregon, respectively rounding out the top five. In 2019, California was ranked number seven on our list. It climbed two spots to number five in 2020.

Considering the trends we’ve seen in recent years, many of these moves are not surprising. Each year the numbers representing top reasons for migration across the U.S. stay relatively consistent, and 2020 continued to show people moving away from densely populated areas. However, in a year like 2020, it’s fascinating to notice the added reasons, or one big reason, that accelerated some of these moves. No matter the age of those who moved this past year and whether it was because of an accelerated retirement or due to wanting to be closer to family in a time of uncertainty, it should be interesting to watch which of these moves prove to be temporary or permanent and how each of these cities will perform in our rankings in the years to come.

Want to read more about the Annual Migration Study? Check out United Van Lines’ Migration Study Reveals Where and Why Americans Moved in 2020 to see where your state ranks.

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