The financial planner Drew vonEhrenkrook was just following the crowd when he packed up and moved from his native Kansas to Austin, Texas, last year.
“I had a lot of friends and clients who were already living down here and raving about it,” vonEhrenkrook, 29, told Insider. Their glowing reports of life in the Texas capital emboldened him to make the leap — the draws of no state income tax, warm weather, and a buzzy social scene didn’t hurt, either.
He’s one of the 67,000 people who relocated to Austin in 2020, according to new US Census Bureau data released last month that showed Austin was the fourth-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. Pandemic-inspired mass migration — fueled further by the rise of remote work that unchained employees from traditional offices, the desire to live in larger spaces while spending less money, and record-low mortgage rates — means that some 36 million Americans (according to one Zillow estimate) traded homes last year.
The census figures, which track population change between July 2019 and July 2020, reveal which types of places the most people flocked: mountain towns, Southern cities, and Sun Belt vacation spots and retirement communities.
The Villages, a massive 55-plus neighborhood in central Florida that is a veritable Disney World for retirees, topped the list of places that gained the most residents over the course of the year. Following it is the red-canyoned Southwestern haven of St. George, Utah, the popular spring-breaker destination and golf retreat of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the booming tech hub of Austin, and the resort-lined forests of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The population of each spot grew between 3 and 4% year over year, the census found, more than any of the other 415 US metro areas the agency tracks.
Insider examined why these locations gained so many residents by surveying transplants and local real-estate brokers who watched their cities — and real-estate markets — explode firsthand. Their stories all illuminate one thing: Americans are seeking out quality-of-life improvements that transcend the costly confines of major cities, from lower taxes to proximity to outdoor spaces like miles of coastline or picturesque national parks.
At first glance, Austin and The Villages might seem to have nothing in common. But they — along with the now popular Idaho, South Carolina, and Utah locales — are linked by a set of qualities that offer what major coastal cities can’t: better weather, cheaper homes and goods, and activities that are attractive both to early retirees and to remote workers.
Another striking similarity among the five top spots is that all of their states’ electoral votes went to Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Locals told Insider their areas attracted relocating Americans, at least in part, because of their “values.”
Here’s a look at what it’s like in each of the country’s fastest-growing metros, in ascending order.
5. Coeur d’Alene
Population in 2019: 165,656
Population in 2020: 170,628
Percent change, 2019 to 2020: 3%
Known for its resorts set on mountains and lakes tucked in the northwest corner of the state across the border from Spokane, Washington, Coeur d’Alene has welcomed about 3,000 new residents a year for the past two decades.
But in 2020, about 5,000 new arrivals landed in the golf- and spa-filled outdoorsy paradise. The local population grew by 3% in 2020, to 170,628, the census data found. The population in Idaho as a whole jumped 2.1% in 2020, the largest year-over-year population increase in the country.
“All of a sudden, people discovered Idaho and wanted to be here,” John Beutler, a Century 21 agent in Coeur d’Alene, said. “People just like the values here.”
The uptick in Gem State transplants came as mountain towns across the West lured hordes of new residents as the shift to remote work and social distancing drove urbanites to rural areas. Many established primary residences in scenic spots traditionally viewed as for vacations or weekends.
Sixty percent of new residents are coming from California, Beutler said, and many others hail from Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
And while many retirees and empty nesters are moving in, Beutler said just as many arrivals were young families or couples from the East Coast who came to Idaho to work remotely temporarily and then decided to buy a home. A resident himself for 45 years, Beutler told Insider that attractive parks, hiking trails, and a lively downtown made Coeur d’Alene an appealing place to live.
Over the past 20 years, the demand to live like you’re at a resort all year long has really raised the profile of Coeur d’Alene, Beutler said, likening Coeur d’Alene to Lake Tahoe and mentioning nearby luxury country clubs and golf courses like Gozzer Ranch. “Memberships have gone way up,” he said.
The newcomers have sent home prices soaring.
“In January 2020, the median sale price was $314,000 in our market,” Beutler said. “Right now in May, the median sale price is $495,000.”
Pushing prices up further is inventory sinking to a record low.
“In the fall of 2020, there were only 275 homes on the market,” he said. Now there are about 600. In a normal market, 1,500 to 2,000 properties would be listed at any given time. The lack of houses for sale prompted “so many” bidding wars with multiple offers — many all cash — that led to over-ask buys, he added.
Most important, Beutler said, is the area’s tight-knit community. Coeur d’Alene voted Republican in five of the last six presidential elections, with the exception being Barack Obama in 2008.
“People look at it as a safe place and align their beliefs with ours,” he said.
Population in 2019: 2,228,106
Population in 2020: 2,295,303
Percent change, 2019 to 2020: 3%
For vonEhrenkrook, the financial planner, the decision to move to Austin was easy.
Midway through the pandemic, he realized, like many others, that he could do his job from anywhere. And so he decided to trade Kansas City, where he’d lived for the past decade, for the Texas capital.
He saw the hordes of new Austin transplants — mostly entrepreneurs and young professionals — as prospective customers for his business teaching others how to manage their money, minimize taxes, and maximize wealth.
“Austin has been one of the fastest-growing cities for each of the past 10 years,” vonEhrenkrook said. “I don’t see any sign of that slowing down, which is perfect for my line of work.”
Knowing so many people who had already moved “made the transition super easy,” said vonEhrenkrook, who joked that he was “one of the few people not from California or New York.”
New residents include migrating tech workers and young couples and families, according to local brokers, who see the most new homebuyers coming from major coastal cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.
Like-minded transplants move largely for career opportunities and an active lifestyle. Plus, the city is less expensive compared with California and New York. “No state income tax helps, too,” he said.
After living in Austin for 10 months, vonEhrenkrook said he had no plans to leave anytime soon.
Austin’s ascent as a tech hub has been more than a decade in the making, brought to life by a lively downtown perched on the Colorado River that has become world-renowned for its top-shelf restaurants and vibrant music scene.
The city has been the center of interest for relocating Americans for most of the past decade, with a net migration of 355,902 residents over the past 10 years — a whopping 20.7% of its 2010 population of about 1.7 million.
Through 2020, Austin’s lure proved stronger than ever, as the coronavirus pandemic’s normalization of remote work — coupled with the influx of businesses like Oracle and Facebook that have sought office space outside major coastal cities — boosted already high demand for homes.
“The real-estate market here was taken to an entirely new level,” Ian Grossman, an Austin Keller Williams real-estate agent, said.
By January 1, “the switch flipped,” he said, adding that in November or December and before then, buyers could still find a home. “Now you just can’t. The whole landscape has changed.”
“Prices have absolutely skyrocketed,” he said, pointing to the median sales price in the Austin area increasing 42% year over year as of April, according to the Austin Board of Realtors. Grossman attributes much of the new climate to housing scarcity, expensive building materials, and the lack of available lots. “Buyers are getting priced out of Austin by the day,” he said.
To win homes, buyers are waiving contingencies and bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars over asking prices, Grossman said, adding that the frenzy extended past just downtown Austin to its suburbs a 30-minute drive away, like Pflugerville and Round Rock.
3. Myrtle Beach
Population in 2019: 497,405
Population in 2020: 514,448
Percent change, 2019 to 2020: 3.4%
Right now, a mortgage preapproval or a pile of cash is necessary to get in on the Myrtle Beach real-estate market. “If you’re coming into our market, you have to be prepared,” Jamie Broadhurst, a local Century 21 broker, said. It’s the only way to “make a move rapidly,” he said.
Myrtle Beach is hot location — literally and figuratively — because of its annual average temperature of 74 degrees Fahrenheit and its 60 miles of uninterrupted coastline. It’s always been a popular tourist destination, but now it’s a popular choice for out-of-state retirees and second homeowners because of low state taxes and an overall affordable cost of living.
The pandemic and rise of remote work further accelerated years of already steady population growth in the resort hub. From July 2019 to July 2020, the US Census Bureau found that the local population leaped from 497,405 to 514,488.
“If a property is of value and goes on the market, it’ll probably be under contract within five days,” Broadhurst said. Redfin found that 782 homes sold in May, compared with 410 in May 2020.
The Coastal Carolina Association of Realtors found that the area’s median sale price in April was $280,000 — the highest it’s been since January 2016. Meanwhile, single-family home sales in April increased by 54.8%, and condo sales increased by 133.2%.
While there are more than 17,000 new residents in the area, the housing market is even more competitive because of others looking for vacation and investment properties.
Renny Diedrich, a local broker with Re/Max, told The Post and Courier that people from the Northeast were primarily choosing to scoop up second homes or rental homes in the area because they had vacationed there before.
“There are very few beach houses on the market,” she said. “A lot of people love the beach. A lot of people love the golf courses.” There are more than 80 golf courses in the area and more than 30 mini-golf courses.
One Connecticut man, Damion Vincent, told Myrtle Beach Online that his retirement strategy was to purchase a number of Myrtle Beach properties to rent out and eventually move into one.
He and his wife bought one home in 2019, another in 2020, and are just about to close on their third. In this market, Vincent said, “you kind of have to jump on these properties really quick.” His original plan was to leave Connecticut for South Carolina full time this year, but the market has dissuaded him because it’s so hot that he can make more by renting properties out than living in one.
He said he was holding back from buying any additional properties because of how expensive they are getting and waiting for the three he already has to supplement, and hopefully replace, the income he makes working. He said he wished he acted faster to acquire properties whose income will hasten the arrival of his beachside retirement.
“There’s not really any end in sight,” he said, for the demand for Myrtle Beach’s lifestyle.
2. St. George
Population in 2019: 177,938
Population in 2020: 184,913
Percent change, 2019 to 2020: 3.9%
Chef Cory LaFranchi relocated from Seattle to St. George in August. He was following the lead of the nearly 7,000 people who moved to there between July 2019 and July 2020.
The local population ballooned from 177,938 people to 184,913, according to the US Census Bureau.
In the southwest corner of Utah near the borders with Arizona and Nevada, the area’s massive red-rock landscape near Zion National Park make it a hiker’s dream. The number of local spas and golf courses add to the allure for retirees and families. The biggest city nearby is Las Vegas, an hour and a half drive away.
The Keller Williams realtor Jeremy Larkin said many were likely moving to St. George in hopes of seeing their own values reflected. The city was named after a 19th-century Mormon apostle and is still home to many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today.
Larkin also estimated that St. George was roughly 75% politically conservative, which he said had been attractive to those looking to live in places with policies more in line with their beliefs in the wake of a polarizing 2020 election and a pandemic that shed light on the rift between states with tighter restrictions and looser ones.
Saving money is another draw.
LaFranchi told the local outlet St. George News that he moved mainly to be closer to family and take advantage of obvious cost-of-living differences. In Seattle, “our property taxes alone were $11,000 a year,” he said. “In St. George, they’re $900.”
Finding that property wasn’t as easy as making the decision to move. LaFranchi was competing against other relocators. At first, he thought his only options to rent were Airbnb properties or resort properties, neither of which were “affordable,” LaFranchi said, adding: “And they’re just as hard to find as houses.”
Like in other metropolitan areas with many new residents, home prices in Washington County, where St. George is, jumped. They increased 26% year over year, according to Realtor.com. In May, the median list price was $439,900 — just a year prior, the median list price was $349,000.
An all-cash buyer snapped up the first home LaFranchi put an offer on, while a brutal bidding war cost him the second home he tried to buy, he said. He finally landed the third home he made an offer on — but won that bidding war by only $1,000.
Every listed property in and around St. George is attracting multiple over-asking bids, Larkin said.
He said the “old faithfuls,” or modest homes with a couple bedrooms priced in the $300,000 range, were drawing the most interest — with some receiving more than 20 bids that drive prices up by at least $30,000.
“These aren’t totally starter homes, but they’re definitely no dream homes either,” Larkin said.
1. The Villages
Population in 2019: 133,772
Population in 2020: 139,018
Percent change, 2019 to 2020: 3.9%
In the 1980s, the Michigan businessman Harold Schwartz bought a 400-unit trailer park in central Florida with the intention of redefining retirement.
The original investment has since grown into The Villages, the largest retirement community in the country. In the area 60 miles northwest of Orlando, golf carts are the main mode of transportation for over 130,000 residents living in the 55-plus community.
When they aren’t a setting a mark recognized by the Guinness World Records for longest golf-cart parade, residents are using those carts to zip between over 50 golf courses, a dozen country clubs, and more.
The Villages is so big, it’s considered its own metropolitan area — and there are more residents careering through the 90 miles of golf-cart paths now than ever before. From July 2019 to July 2020, the population increased by 3.9% to 139,018. That’s more than 5,000 new residents.
The pandemic caused many Americans to start their dream retirements early, which helps explain the recent uptick in new residents.
The community is a Republican stronghold by design — H. Gary Morse, Schwartz’s son who help craft it, was a Republican megadonor, and the enclave presents what some may consider the classic vision of 1950s suburbia. The Villages are dotted with single-family homes, quaint main streets with convenience stores and restaurants, and multiple town squares.
One town square even features a statue of Schwartz as if he were Walt Disney. And in a way, he is. The Villages is as close as you can get to a Disney World for older people.
“There is no place like this,” one resident says in “Some Kind of Heaven,” the 2021 documentary about the community. “This is nirvana,” the resident adds as images of older people partying in piazzas, tanning poolside, and playing tennis dance across the screen. The median age is 66.
All the newcomers have pushed median home prices in The Villages up 5.8% year over year to $291,000 in May, according to Redfin. Perhaps even more telling: Just 74 homes sold in May 2020, while 224 homes sold in May 2021, Redfin found.
John Rohan, the recreation director for The Villages, told the area’s local newspaper that the community’s popularity was unsurprising to him.
“Everybody wants to be a part of something that is unique and sustainable and promotes their personal health and well-being,” he said. “Residents want to participate and be active in the social community and do something they’ve never done, or do something they’ve never done in the past. The benefits are endless.”
Consider Hoa Dupree. At 73 years old, she and her husband just sold their Dayton, Ohio, home and are moving down to The Villages soon. Dupree is learning how to swim — something she’s always been afraid of — in preparation for her new life in Florida.
“I wish I’d been swimming when I was younger,” Dupree told the Springfield News Sun. “This was my second chance.”
Dupree’s attitude seems to be the prevailing sentiment in The Villages, where infamous tales of Viagra black markets, public drunkenness, and sex swinging have emerged.
“When you move here, it’s like going off to college,” Anne Kincer, a resident, says in the documentary. “Since nobody is from here, everybody can be whoever they want to be down here.”