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With all the fuss over publishing listings in every nook and cranny of the internet, we thought it might be helpful to ask: Just how far do most people move, typically? I’ve been in the housing industry for more than twenty years. I remember the days when agents picked up their printed black-and-white books every two weeks at the board office. Back then, inventory was divided into tabbed sections of the book; today, it’s browsed with one finger on an iPad. Certainly, much has changed. But a question still remains in my mind: Do buyers in Boston really care what’s for sale in Boise?

Why do I wonder this, you ask? Because every since we started putting housing inventory online, everyone has argued that “buyers must have access to all of the inventory.” At first, I thought they meant “all of the local inventory” which made perfect sense to me. Yet these days, there seems to be some urgent, unmet need in the marketplace for consumers in Seattle to see homes in Secaucus.

After all, isn’t that the huge argument behind having to syndicate your listings to every corner of the web?

Oh, I get it. If you’re a national company, you’d want national inventory on your national site. Certainly. Especially since that one site can attract people from anywhere and pass them along to your local brokers. But does that actually work in reverse? Do local brokers have to put their inventory on every national-scope site, in order to get potential customers?

The only way we can figure out how to answer this is to ask a more simple question:

Just how far do most people move, anyway?

To answer this, I looked at two sources of data. First, NAR’s 2010 annual survey of buyers and sellers, which indicated the typical buyer moved a median of 12 miles from their previous home.

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It’s about the same as the year before, too. Admittedly, the survey only asked a small percentage of the people who moved last year. So I looked at a larger sample over a longer time period.

I turned to the U.S. Census data (no yawning). Two subsets of the data were instructive: The Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), which estimates geographical mobility in 1-year retrospective periods over the last 60 years. And the American Community Survey (ACS), a national ongoing study of mobility. ACS samples nearly 3 million households annually, and compares them to the previous year. (I promise, it gets better!)

To compare with the NAR data, I looked at ACS data from 2008 and 2009 (the most recent). Here’s what I found. Of the 48 million people who changed residences in 2009: 

  • 59% remained in the same state they were born in
  • 67.3% of  remained within the same county
  • 17% moved to a different county within the same state.
  • 40% of intercounty moves were less than 50 miles apart.
  • 21% of intercounty moves were 50-199 miles apart.
  • 24% of intercounty moves were more than 500 miles.
  • The total number of transfers between all states accounted for 6.8 million people
So, let’s summarize: the majority of people stayed in the same state, moved less than 200 miles and only 1 in 7 people moved from one state to another.
Let’s keep going: If most people are mostly moving locally, could there be any correlation with the sources of data they are likely to use. Once again, the NAR survey:

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As you can see, we have a three-way tie. Arguably MLS websites can be considered both local and statewide, but none that I know of are beyond state lines. That would certainly take care of at least 60% of the buyers. A local agent’s website might attract buyers from afar with great SEO, blogging or social media, but NAR’s data also shows that most agents spent less than $200 on their websites, and only 50% used social media last year. So, not likely. We’ll stipulate an exception for dedicated relocation professionals. As for REALTOR.COM, it only attracted 45% of all buyers’ attention. All other websites – like  Zillow, Trulia, or the Wall Street Journal – where long-distance data can be found alongside local data, were used by less than 4 in 10 buyers.

Let’s say the 24% that moved more than 500 miles are still important, which we believe they are. The question is, how do they find homes? The ACS data showed that moving across state lines was highest in 1997 and has declined ever since. Ironically, there were no “national” websites in 1997. Nor is it just the the recession that accounts for falling migration because the ACS data covers plenty of strong economic years.

Arguably, that still leaves a good number of people who might be shopping for a new home in Boise from their current home in Boston. Certainly, they could Google a good local broker’s website in Boise, featuring all of the “local” listings without that site needing to include San Diego and Atlanta. There’s also the interesting research fact that, while 40% of people found the home they bought on the web, 35% found it through an agent. The data accounts for both local and long distance purchases. Nonetheless, just about as many people found the home they bought from a person as from a website.

That number surely includes some of those long-distance movers who worked with a relocation agent when visiting the area. 

Peter Drucker used to say, the purpose of is to know the customer so well that your products and services fit them, and virtually sell themselves. These days that means knowing how many bedrooms, baths and dollars they want to spend, then showing that data conveniently online. But for an industry that like to chant “location, location, location” it might be helpful to factor in how far people are moving, too, and make sure it makes sense to worry about your Boise listings appearing alongside the Boston properties.