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Americans Back On The Move

In 2008, most Americans stayed put. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a smaller percentage of the population moved to a new residence during 2008 than during any other year since the agency began collecting comparable data in 1948.

But in 2009, the “For Sale” signs returned, went up, and came down. Moving trucks once again lumbered through city streets and along highways as 12.5 percent of Americans found a new place to call home, up from 11.9 percent in 2008. The change is one more small sign that the economy is recovering.

In the depths of the recession, several factors conspired to put a halt on mobility. The dip in housing prices meant that many homeowners owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth, making it difficult or impossible for them to sell one house in order to move on to the next. Employers stopped hiring, so not many people needed to move in order to be close to new jobs. Rock-bottom consumer confidence left few people interested in upgrading their lifestyles. Renters were wary of taking the leap to becoming owners and owners were unwilling to trade up.

“What the [recession] has done is frozen people in place,” Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey Institute and a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham told The Christian Science Monitor.

But the thaw is in progress.

According to data released last week by the National Association of Realtors, home prices are stabilizing in most metropolitan areas, particularly in regions where prices increased less during the boom. In the first quarter of 2010, 91 out of 152 metropolitan areas had higher median home prices than they did in the first quarter of 2009.

In April, overall U.S. payrolls had the biggest monthly gain recorded in the past four years. The private sector added 231,000 jobs, spread across a variety of industries. While the unemployment rate rose slightly, the change was attributed to an increase in the size of the workforce rather than a decrease in the number of available jobs. James O’Sullivan global chief economist at MF Global Ltd. in New York, told Bloomberg Businessweek, “Strength in growth is translating into a pickup in the labor market, which makes the recovery more self-sustaining.”

The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Survey reached its highest point in about a year and a half in April, rising to 57.9 from 52.3 in March. Nearly 20 percent of those surveyed said they expect business conditions will improve over the next six months, compared to only 12.6 percent who said they thought conditions would worsen.

As housing prices, hiring and consumer confidence continue to rise, mobility will increase as well. The recovery will feed on itself. Stabilizing home prices and increased willingness by lenders to permit loan write-downs and short sales will liberate homeowners who have been tethered to underwater mortgages. More moves will generate more spending, such as on new furniture and décor, which will allow businesses to add more jobs.

The increase in moves from 2008 to 2009 probably foreshadows an even larger increase in 2010. So, if you’re packing boxes and comparing square feet, you’re in good company.

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