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Housing slump rekindles old notion of putting down roots

Americans are moving less than at any time since 1948. Many are just waiting to relocate, but some may be embracing a new era of nesting.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / May 20, 2009

In this file photo, prospective buyers tour a San Francisco home. Recent polls show Americans are changing addresses at the lowest level in decades.

Jeff Chiu/AP

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San Francisco

It could have been Seattle or possibly Portland, Ore. Nashville, Tenn., and Chapel Hill, N.C., were in the running, too.

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Jeff Brooks and Daisy Whitney have been on the hunt for a lifestyle change. They yearn for a different part of the country, a place less expensive than the Bay Area where their careers wouldn’t be all-consuming. Even though the couple is successful – he runs a multimedia production company and she’s a well-known technology reporter – they afford living here by working 15-hour days and spending too much time with their laptops and not enough with their two children.

“But in the end, like everything else in life, it came down to money,” says Mr. Brooks. And with the average price of houses down 25.8 percent over the past year in Marin County, where they live, it seemed unlikely they would make enough money from selling their home to justify an expensive out-of-state move. “By the time it was said and done, there wasn’t that much of a savings.”

For now at least, they are staying put – like a lot of other Americans. The rate of Americans changing addresses is at the lowest level since 1948, when the Census Bureau began tracking nationwide mobility trends. The number of people who moved in 2008 fell to 11.9 percent compared with 13.2 percent the year before. In total, 35.2 million people changed residences last year, the smallest number since 1962.

Of those who did move in 2008, the vast majority didn’t go far. Sixty-five percent stayed within the same county, according to Census data released late last month.

Americans will probably begin moving again once real estate prices stabilize and unemployment rates decline, but meanwhile, the housing crisis has ushered in a new era of nesting. Homeowners are opting out of the market – some waiting on the sidelines for improvement – and new home buyers are entering it with intentions of putting down roots.

“There is definitely a shift in how buyers are viewing buying a house. There is a lot more pressure on buyers, and they seem to understand that they are making a long-term commitment,” said San Francisco realtor Eva Stoyanov, in an e-mail response to questions. “It's kind of like getting married as opposed to dating.”

From asset to home

For society at large, the decline in nationwide relocation is just a “short bump” on the road of long-term, sustained mobility, says William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

After all, he says, the US is the most mobile country in the industrialized world.