The COVID-19 pandemic shook up just about everything—especially where many people live. It caused a mass real estate migration unlike any in recent memory.
Lots of folks traded the cities for suburbs—more space! fewer people!—while others relocated to new, often cheaper, parts of the country. And with the popularity of remote work that allows buyers to live just about anywhere and the growing frustration with record-high home prices, the real estate reshuffle isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
In the first quarter of the year, more than half, 59.7%, of all of the views on the home listings on Realtor.com® came from shoppers based in other metros. That was a 4.6% bump over the same time last year.
So where is everyone going?
Our economics team analyzed the search traffic on Realtor.com to figure out the areas where people wanted to move to—and where they most wanted to leave. We scrutinized the data to determine the nation’s most sought-after areas from buyers who are looking at homes in a different metro area from where they live. On the other end of the scale, the team also found the metro areas where the highest percentage of locals were looking for homes someplace else.
“The pandemic led many Americans to revisit priorities, preferences, and timelines,” says George Ratiu, manager of economic research for Realtor.com. “Worries over health, financial pressures, lifestyle, and well-being were channeled into finding a home in a location which offered ample access to the outdoors, better quality of life, and increasingly important, affordable housing.”
As for trends, we found that the ever-elusive quest for affordability is still driving most preferences. Vacation and retirement destinations are especially popular with those browsing real estate listings from other areas. Some shoppers were looking to relocate, especially those who can work remotely. Others were hoping to purchase a second home, and then there were those who just wanted to dream.
Meanwhile, folks in the more expensive cities, colder parts of the country, and college and military towns seem to be looking for exit strategies. Folks in the chilly and pricey Northeast were the most likely to look at homes in other parts of the country. About 37.2% of them viewed properties in different regions. About 26.4% of folks from the Midwest, 25% of those in the West, and just 11.3% of people in the South also searched Realtor.com for residences located elsewhere.
To track the moves, the Realtor.com analysis covered the 300 largest metropolitan areas in the first quarter of 2022. (A metro area encompasses the main city and surrounding towns and smaller urban areas.) We limited the list to just one metro per state to ensure geographic diversity.
OK, let’s start with the most popular list—a tour of the most popular destinations for homebuyers right now!
1. Punta Gorda, FL
Percentage of Realtor.com home listing views from outside of the metro: 90.12%
Median home list price: $430,000*
2. East Stroudsburg PA
Percentage of listing views from outside of the metro: 89.1%
Median home list price: $322,000
3. Kahului, HI
Percentage of listing views from outside of the metro: 88.3%
Median home list price: $1,197,500
4. Rocky Mount, NC
Percentage of listing views from outside of the metro: 88.3%
Median home list price: $232,500
5. Prescott, AZ 87.86%
Percentage of listing views from outside of the metro: 88.9%
Median home list price: $622,300
6. Claremont, NH
Percentage of listing views from outside of the metro: 87.5%
Median home list price: $400,000
7. Hilton Head Island, SC
Percentage of listing views from outside of the metro: 85.9%
Median home list price: $522,000
8. Santa Fe, NM
Percentage of listing views from outside of the metro: 85.9%
Median home list price: $879,000
9. Decatur, AL
Percentage of listing views from outside of the metro: 84.9%
Median home list price: $268,000
10. Barnstable Town (Cape Cod), MA
Percentage of listing views from outside of the metro: 84.7%
Median home list price: $849,450
It’s about affordability, affordability, affordability
Many homebuyers found their budgets were stymied by soaring home prices where they lived. So they’re seeking out places where they might find deals.
While real estate in Punta Gorda, FL (No. 1), isn’t exactly a steal at a median list price of $430,000, it’s still less than in some other popular cities in the Sunshine State. Take Naples, just over an hour south, which exploded in popularity during the pandemic. The $825,000 median home list price is nearly double what Punta Gorda buyers are paying.
“They’re coming from all over the country. It used to be people coming to Punta Gorda were coming from the Midwest, like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and the Northeast,” says Punta Gorda–based real estate agent Karen Brown, of Michael Saunders & Co. “But what we have found is there are a lot of people relocating from California and Colorado. We’re seeing a lot more people moving here from the West.”
Almost all of her clients are out-of-towners, many of them baby boomers who haven’t yet retired. Some are looking for waterfront condos and townhomes, while others want updated single-family homes.
Home prices were also significantly lower in Rocky Mount, NC (No. 4), an outdoorsy location about an hour northwest of Raleigh, NC, and in Decatur, AL (No. 9), which lies alongside the Tennessee River just over an hour north of Birmingham, AL. Median list prices in the metros were $232,500 and $268,000 respectively—compared with $405,000 nationally.
Vacation areas top the list of where people want to move
The most popular destinations for out-of-towners were vacation areas. After being cooped up for nearly two years due to COVID-19, buyers apparently wanted to browse home listings in resort areas. Outdoorsy communities, where shoppers wouldn’t have to worry as much about social distancing, were particularly appealing.
Two of the top 10—East Stroudsburg, PA (No. 2), and Claremont, NH (No. 6)—were recently named the most affordable destinations to purchase vacation homes, according to Realtor.com. East Stroudsburg is part of the Poconos, an area long popular with travelers for its lakes, trails, and ski resorts, while Claremont attracts visitors who like to kayak and fish along the Connecticut River or ski at a local resort.
Shoppers viewing vacation areas didn’t limit themselves to cheaper locales, however. Four of the top 10 metros on our list—Kahului, HI (No. 3); Prescott, AZ (No. 5); Hilton Head Island, SC (No. 7); and Barnstable Town (Cape Cod), MA (No. 10)—were recently named the hottest luxury markets in the country, according to Realtor.com. The Pueblo architecture and artsy vibe of Santa Fe, NM (No. 8), have also long drawn visitors.
In many of these pricier places, buyers of means relocated year-round because many could work from anywhere. Others purchased second or even third homes in resort communities where they could spend a few months a year in and then make some money renting them out on sites like Airbnb the rest of the time.
During the pandemic, “there was a huge move here from both metropolitan Boston and Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and the suburbs of Manhattan,” says Cape Cod real estate agent Doug Payson, of Kinlin Grover Compass.
All of those new residents have driven up prices by nearly 15% year over year in March as buyers compete over a very limited number of homes for sale.
“It’s almost a feeding frenzy when something comes on the market,” says Payson.
Retirement areas are more and more popular with homebuyers
Many home shoppers also sought out retirement meccas—including those buyers who were a few years away from bidding adieu to their daily 9-5 grinds. Many of the places they’re seeking out are the same areas that attract tourists due to their warmer winters, natural beauty, and surplus of fun things to do.
Retirement areas such Punta Gorda, FL; Prescott, AZ; Hilton Head Island, SC; and Santa Fe, NM, also popular with tourists, were also attractive places for buyers in other areas.
In Hilton Head, boomers are often buying vacation properties as sort of a test drive to determine whether they’d like to have a forever home there. They’ll often rent them out when they’re not staying in these homes, says Hilton Head real estate broker Wendy Corbitt, of Sea Pines Real Estate at the Beach Club. (She’s also seeing plenty of buyers in their 40s and 50s.)
“The list spotlights mostly Sun Belt communities, which offer good weather, desirable amenities, and a more balanced lifestyle,” notes Ratiu of Realtor.com. “With retirees seeking Florida’s sunny weather and low taxes, it is not surprising to see [the state] topping the list.”
Got it? OK, let’s take a look at the metros that people seem to be dying to leave.
1. San Jose, CA
Percentage of locals looking at listings outside of their metro: 86.7%
Median home list price: $1,399,000*
2. Seattle, WA
Percentage of locals looking at listings outside of their metro: 86.1%
Median home list price: $755,000
3. Washington, DC
Percentage of locals looking at listings outside of their metro: 82.3%
Median home list price: $545,000
4. Columbus, GA
Percentage of locals looking at listings outside of their metro: 82.1%
Median home list price: $194,000
5. Gainesville, FL
Percentage of locals looking at listings outside of their metro: 80.1%
Median home list price: $324,000
6. Fort Collins, CO
Percentage of locals looking at listings outside of their metro: 79.7%
Median home list price: $635,000
7. South Bend, IN
Percentage of locals looking at listings outside of their metro: 79.6%
Median home list price: $250,000
8. Manchester, NH
Percentage of locals looking at listings outside of their metro: 79.3%
Median home list price: $462,000
9. Dover, DE
Percentage of locals looking at listings outside of their metro: 78.8%
Median home list price: $415,000
10. Fargo, ND
Percentage of locals looking at listings outside of their metro: 76.5%
Median home list price: $360,000
Military bases and university towns are seeing a lot of turnover
People always seem to be coming and going in areas with large military populations and college towns, and that rapid turnover is continuing apace.
For example, Fort Benning, just outside of Columbus, GA (No. 4), has a population of more than 100,000 active-duty service personnel, civilian workers, and their families. Many are fairly mobile once an assignment or contract ends or they’re reassigned. Meanwhile, the Dover Air Force Base, in Dover, DE (No. 9), is the largest aerial port for the Department of Defense and is home to roughly 11,000 service personnel, civilians, and families.
Big college towns are also more transient as students graduate and then move back home or closer to their new jobs. For instance, the University of Florida, in Gainesville, FL (No. 5), had more than 61,000 students. That’s a whole lot of folks looking for housing once graduation rolls around.
Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, CO (No. 6), had nearly 29,000 students attending its main campus. South Bend, IN (No. 7), is home to one of the smaller Indiana University branches, and Notre Dame University sits just outside of its border.
High prices are pushing buyers to cheaper locations
Homebuyers in some of America’s priciest cities may have finally had enough.
Even on hefty tech salaries, the $1.4 million price tag in Silicon Valley’s San Jose, CA (No. 1), is still daunting for many home shoppers—particularly first-time buyers. A 20% down payment in the metro on that median home price is $280,000 and can go much higher.
With the proliferation of remote work for many white-collar professionals, many folks in pricier areas like San Jose, Seattle, WA (No. 2), and Washington, DC (No. 3), are relocating to cheaper parts of the country. Or if they need to go into the office only once or twice a week, they might be less likely to mind a long commute if they move farther out into less expensive exurbs or other metros.
Kevin Swartz, a Silicon Valley real estate agent at Atria Real Estate, is now working with many buyers leaving the San Jose metro, which allows many folks to save money and “be able to live closer to family or a place they prefer.”
In addition, as many places have become more expensive during the pandemic as they’ve attracted buyers from all over, locals are seeking out cheaper options. For example, the median list price in Fort Collins, CO, was up 13.1% in March from the same time a year ago, at $635,995. Prices were up about 17% in Manchester, NH (No. 8), and nearly 22% in Fargo, ND (No. 10).
So buyers in places like Manchester, which has consistently been named the nation’s hottest market, might be looking at nearby alternatives like Concord, NH, where median list prices are 7.5% lower, or even farther north where they can get more property, says Pamela Young, a Manchester-based associate real estate broker at eXp Realty.
* Median home list prices in the entire metropolitan area, including towns, suburbs, and smaller cities, in March on Realtor.com