- We looked back at four highly ranked areas on our list of the best cities to move to post-pandemic.
- Net domestic migration from 2019 to 2020 for these metro areas was pretty similar to previous years.
- Huntsville, Alabama, had a larger positive net domestic migration this year, continuing its growth.
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Three months ago, Aaron and Christine Lager traded their 1,100-square-foot home outside San Francisco house for a 3,500-square-foot property in Huntsville, Alabama.
The aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin had offered Aaron a good, well-paying job, and Christine was enchanted by the city’s quaint downtown.
Huntsville is one of the winners of the pandemic migration boom. The metro area had a positive net domestic migration – the number of people moving into a metro area from elsewhere in the US minus people moving out to another part of the country – of 8,964 from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, according to the most recently available US Census Bureau data. This was higher than the 6,815 in the same period a year earlier.
We anticipated its success: In summer last year, as moving became a popular conversation topic, and people debated the best places to ride out lockdowns and work remotely, Insider decided to use available data to create a list of the best cities to move to after the pandemic. The metropolitan-area data, which was mainly from before the pandemic, covered nine metrics. For example, low unemployment rates, low cost of living, and high ability to work from home would likely lead to a higher place in the ranking. Huntsville came out among the top 10, in part for its high educational attainment and high share of jobs that could be done remotely.
Now that it has been over a year since we came up with our list, we were interested in seeing if people moved to the cities that made up some of the top spots.
As seen in the chart below, people did move to Huntsville and Cheyenne, Wyoming, which we anticipated. But two other cities we thought would do well – Rochester, New York, and Champaign, Illinois – lost residents.
But gains and losses for these metro areas aren’t new.
A closer look at data from the Census Bureau over the past few years showed a lot of the cities mostly experienced domestic migration that followed trends that had gone on for years. This fits in with other findings that the pandemic accelerated moves that were already in the works, like Americans moving from high-tax to low-tax states and leaving large and expensive metro areas for suburbs and secondary cities.
Huntsville, which came in ninth in our ranking, is a prime example. It had positive net domestic migration every year, according to data from the past decade. Meanwhile, Rochester, which ranked 15th in our ranking, experienced the opposite. From 2010 to 2020, its metro area recorded negative net domestic migration every year. We thought that COVID-19 might result in some new areas experiencing an influx of residents given the flexibility for people to work remotely, but the destinations of choice actually didn’t change that much.
To be sure, the census estimates don’t cover the full year of 2020 and aren’t the official decennial count. Others, like The New York Times and Bloomberg, have used US Postal Service change-of-address data to figure out where people moved during the pandemic.
One thing’s for certain: We were right that the pandemic offered a huge opportunity for some people to rethink where to live. Just because one in five (according to one Pew estimate) people moved during the pandemic or knows someone who did doesn’t mean they dramatically changed where they moved. And we didn’t take into account previous moving patterns to and from metro areas when coming up with our own guesses for relocators’ destinations of choice.
Below are our deep dives into four locations from our best-city list: two with positive net domestic migration and two with negative net domestic migration during part of the pandemic.
Huntsville was perhaps our best call, ranking ninth on our best-city list. The census statistics show that, over time, more people have moved there from other parts of the US than moved out. Outside the government-data release, an annual study from United Van Lines National Movers found Huntsville was the fourth most popular city to move to in 2020.
Why? Thousands of tech workers are flocking to Huntsville — Alabama’s unsung “rocket city” — for good jobs and Southern hospitality. The longtime NASA hub is luring Facebook, Boeing, Blue Origin, and other major employers. Plus, new arrivals from Silicon Valley find their money goes much further.
Cheyenne ranked 12th on our list of cities to move to after the pandemic, in part because of its shorter weekly commute and lower population density. Indeed, Wyoming’s rugged capital saw an influx of residents during the pandemic that mirrored five years of steady arrivals.
Conservative politics and wide, open spaces have drawn herds of relocators. Take Microsoft employee Troy Nowak, a California native who wanted to move his family to a place with outdoor activities, low crime, and no traffic. He chose Cheyenne.
Rochester, New York
Unlike Huntsville and Cheyenne, more people left the upstate city of Rochester for elsewhere in the US — in line with years of population decline that preceded the pandemic. So while Rochester ranked 15th on our list of places to move after the pandemic — in part for its per-pupil spending on education and share of jobs that could be done from home — it didn’t actually gain residents last year.
Betty Battaglia, a local broker, was shocked to hear that “American’s first boomtown” — a five-hour drive northwest of Manhattan and sandwiched between Syracuse and Buffalo — lost residents. She described a red-hot housing market with dozens of prospective buyers placing competing offers on each listing and pushing prices up.
It turns out that while people did leave Rochester in 2020 — some to head south or to other low-tax, warm-weather states, in a continuation of migration trends of the past decade — many moved to upgrade their quality of life locally. There was enough demand for homeownership from locals, in fact, that the population loss barely registered.
As Americans flee urban hubs for larger homes and a lower cost of living during the coronavirus pandemic, the Champaign-Urbana metro area seems like the perfect landing pad. It’s in central Illinois amid corn fields, about 135 miles south of Chicago and 125 miles west of Indianapolis — within a two-hour drive of either city. It has a rural but lively college-town feel thanks to the state’s flagship public university, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Champaign-Urbana placed third in our ranking, in part because of its shorter weekly commute and higher educational attainment. But it also lost residents during the pandemic.
Even as people leave Champaign in droves, the local real-estate market remains emblematic of the national frenzied housing market marked by all-cash offers, sight-unseen purchases, and creative buyer tactics. There are still enough people who want to buy homes in the college town, and inventory is so limited in Champaign and nationwide that demand has driven prices up anyway.