Grapes of Wrath Redux? Relo Survey Finds Long-Distance Moves the New Norm

When helping put together a press release for our recent survey, I grappled with comparisons to the Great Depression — making historical comparisons is fraught with peril.

But I did it anyway. Why?


Well, compared to a study we performed in 2008, we found that more people nowadays are moving a long distance (we define a long move as one over 1,000 miles). In our 2008 survey, 36% said they were moving that distance; in our 2009 survey, 70% said they were.

When I heard this, visions of John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ leapt to mind — legions of the down-on-their-luck trekking halfway across the country in search of a better life.

Granted, there’s a significant factor behind our findings: people aren’t “trading up” anymore. This became sport during the housing bubble — take the big gain in your current house and leverage that into a bigger and more expensive house across town, or even in your own neighborhood.

That worked until housing prices crashed. People are much less able to tap the gain in their home (if they have one) and apply that to a bigger house.

But there’s something else afoot here — fewer people are moving, of course, but those who are, are moving longer distances.

Load Up the Jalopy

First, if you don’t have a job, you’re going to move to where your employment prospects are brighter. If that’s 1,000 miles away, you’re going to do that.

Second, our survey also found that more people are citing “family” as a reason they move — in 2008, 18% said they were moving for family reasons; in 2009, 28% said they were doing so.

Unfortunately, we didn’t dig into this stat very deeply (kick to self…), but we can make a few obvious assumptions.

First, maybe they were just moving to be closer to their family for personal reasons to be closer to them.

Or maybe reflecting harder economic times, people are moving in with relatives to save on housing costs. And if they aren’t moving IN with family, maybe they want to be closer to them for a support system to help with child care, etc.

After digesting all this, I start thinking about it historically.

Looking for a Better Life

And historically, periods of economic distress cause shifts in population. In the 30s, the economy exacerbated an already horrific econological disaster — the Dust Bowl. Millions fled.

The ‘Great Migration’ of African Americans from the South to Northern cities in the early 20th century was the result of several factors, including festering racism, but a primary factor was also the economy — again, migration over great distances for greater opportunities.

Finally, the recession in the late 70s/early ’80s helped spark an exodus of sorts from northern states to the South and Southwest.

So I think it’s inevitable that this recession will produce people who are moving longer distances for economic opportunities. We’re already seeing some of that — the migration from Detroit. Our own own data shows a pretty stunning outflow of people moving from Detroit and some other hard-pressed cities, and states like California are showing outflows of population, again backed up both by our own data and Census data.

As this recession unfolds, it will be interesting to see which other areas of the country see more migration out than in (Texas is pretty clearly attracting new residents). But it’s much less clear about other states and cities.

The question for those in the relocation biz — real estate agents, moving companies — is figuring out what this means for their business.

Does this change the way you market for your clients?

It should. And if not, it will.

— Tim Johnson,

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