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Uncommon Sense: Where America Is Moving
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Uncommon Sense: Where America Is Moving

Nearly half of all American households plan to move at some point in the future.

How many Americans move, and how they make their moving choices, is of enormous importance to the American economy. Recently, The Demand Institute surveyed more than 10,000 households about their current living situation and what was important to them in a home and community, as part of a broader effort to understand where future home and community demand is headed. Here are 10 striking things we learned and some of the implications.

  1. What the realtors say is true. Out of all those who said they planned to move, three out of four cited location as a factor—whether they were seeking a safer neighborhood, proximity to their family or their work, or simply a change of climate. In fact, for most Americans, the location of their home is as or more important than what the home is actually like!
  2. In a break from the past, however, most movers—74%—will stay in-state, and almost 60% will remain within 30 miles of their current home. There has been a drop of 30% in the percentage of movers leaving their state since 2000. Partly, this is due to structural changes in labor markets and the prolonged economic weakness across the country that followed the Great Recession.
  3. Of those moving out-of-state, the western and southern U.S. will gain at the expense of east and north. For those moving out-of-state, a change of climate is their top reasons for doing so.
  4. The rural population has declined over the last 25 years, falling from 22% in 1990 to 19% in 2000 and 16% in 2014. In the first period, the city center population also dropped slightly, from 33% to 31%, leading to a growth in the suburban population from 45% to 50% of the total. In the second period, as the rural population continued to fall, the suburban population held steady at 50%, while the city population climbed again to 34% of the total. The increase in city population may be connected to the fact that more Americans are renting these days: Since 2006, the U.S. has added more than 5 million renter households.
  5. The long-term shift to the suburbs is set to continue: The percentage of movers who dwell now and intend to dwell in the city is flat at 23%, but rural areas will drop from 30% of the total to 27%, with the suburbs claiming the 3% difference. Within those numbers, however, there is a skew toward bigger, more affordable homes and safer neighborhoods further from the city center.
  6. The continuing dominance of the suburbs is directly tied to people’s perceptions of what constitutes a safe neighborhood. As reported previously, “safe neighborhoods” is a top unmet housing need for many Americans. One in five currently reports that their neighborhood is becoming less safe, despite significant declines in serious crimes over the last 25 years.
  7. While safe streets matter to almost everyone, other location-related priorities vary in straightforward ways with people’s life situations. Those with school-age children care about good schools (34%); those in the workforce want to be close to their job (32%); 39% identified being within walking distance of entertainment, services and public transit; 26% sought a diverse neighborhood. There are those who prefer not to be too close to anything at all!
  8. Many moving decisions are driven by transportation and commuting needs. The car remains the most dominant mode of transportation in all areas: Only in urban areas did 12% of residents not use a car at least once a month. In the suburbs and rural areas, only 3% did not use a car at all. However, almost half of Americans (49%) report walking to places in their community at least once a month, affirming the desire of many for some level of walkability.
  9. Given that more than 90% of U.S. households have at least one car, most Americans are comfortable being a short drive from grocery stores, restaurant services and amenities. Only with regard to parks and green spaces did the percentage that wanted them in walking distance (35%) approach the percentage that wanted them a short drive away (40%).
  10. From one point of view, the relatively low expressed desire for “walkability” is surprising: More walkable communities report stronger expected home price growth. They are also more likely to report that their quality of life has improved in the past few years.

These findings have many implications for business leaders and policy makers. Here are three that emerged clearly from our research:

  • Safe, well-kept streets and quiet neighborhoods remain the hallmarks of the ideal home location for many Americans. The perception of safety is an indicator of overall community well-being. As such, keeping crime in check in areas still struggling economically continues to be a key challenge. More generally, crime reduction will be essential for urban areas to realize their full potential.
  • The car remains by far the dominant transportation method (even for Millennials, as noted previously). There will be very significant demand for new auto-related technological advances, whether cleaner engine technology or self-driving cars. At the same time, the desire for walkability—particularly regarding parks and green spaces—means that urban planners will increasingly need to balance a portfolio of transport options.
  • The largest proportion of Americans lives in the suburbs, and will continue to do so. As such, maintaining the characteristics of the American suburb—safe streets and good schools—must remain top priorities. Addressing aging infrastructure and planning for greater density—the percentage of the population in the suburbs will hold steady, but, as the population grows, the absolute number will rise—will also be important.