A house with a moving van parked outside and boxes on the sidewalk.

No mass movement: Americans are staying put 

Apart from an early-pandemic spike in moves, mobility has continued to decline for decades, particularly among young renters.

April 3, 2023
3 minutes

Key points:

  • A Harvard University study found that overall mobility dropped during the pandemic, despite an uptick in interstate moves.
  • Mobility among homeowners is more stable compared to renters, who may be more impacted by affordability.
  • Remote work may have a lasting impact on Americans' moving decisions, but it's too soon to tell.

Despite a brief uptick early in the pandemic, Americans are not moving around as much as they used to.

A recent study concluded that while there was an increase in people moving to lower-cost states as well as smaller metro areas, overall mobility has slowed, continuing what's been a four-decade trend. During the pandemic, overall mobility dropped from 12.9% in 2019 to 11.9% in 2021.

The data seems to conflict with other reports pointing to a continued increase in migration, but according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, an analysis of multiple data sets going back to the 1980s show an overall decline in mobility, particularly due to a decrease in local moves. 

The biggest drops, the authors found, have come from what many think of as the most mobile demographic: young renters. 

The mobility rate for adults between 18-24 was 32% in 1989; by 2019 it had fallen to 18%, according to the research paper, citing U.S. Census data.

At the same time, renter mobility steadily dropped, from 35% in 1989 to 20% in 2019, the report found. Homeowner mobility has remained fairly flat between 2006 and 2021.

Affordability, dual-incomes slowing mobility

The causes of decreased mobility aren't completely clear, said Riordan Frost, who authored the report, but he believes it's probably a combination of factors, with inequity and affordability being two of the bigger themes.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that the long-term decline in residential mobility started in the 1980s when income and wealth inequality also started (and haven't stopped) rising," Frost said in an email.

Another factor in slowing mobility is the rise of dual incomes. The ability of a family to move becomes more challenging when two people have jobs, particularly in occupations where someone is licensed for a specific state, said Taylor Marr, deputy chief economist at Redfin. He also noted that the cost of moving has become a hurdle for many.

Homeowners may have more flexibility to move

When looking specifically at homeownership over the past few years, the data on mobility becomes a bit more nuanced, Marr said. While the decline in renter mobility has influenced the overall trend, some interesting jumps in mobility have happened among homeowners, particularly those who had more flexibility due to high equity in their property or their ability to work remotely.

The number of Redfin users searching outside their current city spiked earlier in the pandemic, then fell sharply in early 2022 and has continued to drop as elevated interest rates and low inventory have deterred both buyers and sellers.

Will mobility continue to decline? The Harvard report concluded that it was too early to tell, noting that the prevalence of remote work may have a greater impact on mobility in the coming years. 

Many companies appear to be settling on a hybrid approach, with workers coming into the office for a portion of the work week. That is showing up in recent home-search trends, as buyers seem to be looking for the optimal combination of distance from a large city and cost of ownership, said Hannah Jones, Realtor.com's economic data analyst.

"While commuter markets have always been popular for this reason, less frequent office attendance requirements increases the feasible living radius," Jones said.

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