Tennessee leads the nation as a U-Haul move destination

Photo by Dave Flessner / U Haul trucks line one of the company's 20,000 dealer locations on Hixson Pike in Chattanooga. U-Haul is the most popular moving truck rental company in the business and last year the company said Tennessee had the most inmigration of moves of any U.S. state.

Work-from-home orders and job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic prompted more Americans to pack up and head to other states in 2020.

Among those who rented one-way U-Hauls to relocate, Tennessee was the top destination state last year, according to a new report by America's biggest moving equipment rental company.

In Tennessee, arrivals accounted for 50.6% of all one-way U-Haul traffic in Tennessee, up 12% over the previous year. Meanwhile, departures rose only 9% over 2019 in Tennessee.

"I'm seeing a lot of people from California move [to Tennessee] because they're attracted to our lifestyle," said Jeff Porter of U-Haul Company of Nashville. "Tennessee also has no income tax, plenty of jobs and is business friendly."

Cathy Billings is among the former Californians who moved to Tennessee, where she is now working as a manager at the Pruett's Market on Signal Mountain. After living most of her life in the San Francisco Bay area, she was intrigued by where one of her cheese suppliers, Sequatchie Cove Cheese, came from and decided to head to Tennessee to check out the Chattanooga region.

"I had been thinking about leaving California for some time due to the horrible cost of living, traffic and other concerns, so ultimately I decided to sell my home I had had for 24 years, pack up my dog and my belongings and move to Chattanooga," Billings said. "It turned out to be a great move, and I just love it here - the people, the community and the cost of living are just great."

She was able to get a mortgage for a 3-bedroom home in Red Bank for the same amount she got such a loan for in California a quarter of a century earlier.

Tennessee appeal

East and Central Tennessee are enjoying the biggest gains in U-Haul arrivals. The top growth cities include Knoxville, the Tri-Cities, Cookeville, Clarksville, Cleveland, Murfreesboro and Maryville, according to U-Haul moving data from 2020.

"The best thing about Tennessee is the southern hospitality. People are decent to one another," said Clay McQuade, president of the U-Haul Company in Knoxville. "Tourism is a big draw in this region, mostly for the Great Smoky Mountains. There's plenty to do outdoors."

Florida, which came in first in 2019, came in third.

Texas, which has ranked in the top two states with the most one-way arrivals since 2015, was No. 2 in the 2020 U-Haul migration report. California ranked last on 2020's list, behind Illinois, New Jersey and Massachusetts, as the states with the least one-way arrivals.

Dr. Reid Maclellan, who was an adjunct professor of surgery at both Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital (where he practiced and taught translational medical research) was among those moving last year from Massachusetts to Tennessee, where he grew up on Lookout Mountain.

At the urging of Dynamo VC Fund Partner Ted Alling and others, Maclellan moved to Lookout Mountain last February to start Cortina Health, Inc., an artificial intelligence health care company with a mission to restore the care in health care and improve quality of life for both patients and physicians.

"Boston and Route 128 are a world-class hub for health care and technology startups, but I wanted to come back to Tennessee where taxes are much more favorable and where I think there is still a great opportunity for business startups," Dr. Maclellan said. "In the pandemic, people are working remotely, so we've been able to assemble a great team from across the country working remotely."

Moving doubles in 2020

The pandemic uprooted millions of Americans last year, particularly those in major U.S. cities hard hit by the pandemic. According to a Pew Research Center survey last year, 22% of U.S. adults either moved or know someone who moved during the pandemic. By comparison, in 2019, the Census Bureau reported fewer than 10% of Americans moved to new places, the lowest rate since it began tracking moves in 1947.

A survey from real estate data clearinghouse Redfin in May showed more than 50% of people in New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston would move if work-from-home arrangements became permanent.

"Redfin is preparing for a seismic demographic shift toward smaller cities," Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman said.

The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce is eager to capitalize on the shift by attracting both businesses and talent to Chattanooga's growing Gig City.

Miles Huff, senior director of talent initiatives at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said Chattanooga's high-speed internet service allows employees to work remotely and live where they want. Chattanooga's relatively low cost of living, low tax burden and outdoor and cultural attractions have made the Scenic City attractive to many relocating Americans.

"I think what we've seen since in light of COVID-19 especially is a migration away from larger metropolitan cities because of the safety concerns and inability to get out in bigger cities," Huff said. "Chattanooga's footprint is unique in that we have a vibrant urban core but we also have an incredible outdoor scene with lots of ways to remain engaged and active even during a pandemic."

Selling Gig City

The Chamber launched a job recruitment website - Chattanooga Calling.com - last month to help local workers connect with employers that are hiring. But the website will soon be expanded to help lure workers from across the country to fill many of the computer programming and other skilled jobs growing in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga's appeal as a growing mid-size Southern city is leading Paul Mitchell to relocate his 3-year-old branding and advertising company, Likemind, from Tupelo, Mississippi to Chattanooga.

(READ MORE: Big City to Gig City. How Chattanooga is drawing new residents.)

Mitchell, a native of Portland, Oregon, moved to Tupelo seven years ago to be closer to his wife's family. Although he successfully built up an ad agency in Tupelo and is growing his own branding, he was eager to move to a more fertile market to continue the growth of the business in a family-friendly midsized city.

"We wanted to move to a larger market where there is more opportunity, but we didn't want the expense or congestion of Atlanta or Nashville, so we started looking at Chattanooga and really fell in love with the city," he said. "Chattanooga has a great creative vibe, a dynamic downtown and incredibly friendly and supportive people."

Mitchell plans to relocate his family to Chattanooga later this year once the current school term for his 9-year-old son ends. One of his employees, Leah Collins, already moved to the BlueBird Apartments in Chattanooga last week and is planning to get married and settle in Chattanooga with her fiancee, Blake Sullivan.

"We are so incredibly excited to be here and it just seems like a great town overall," she said. "After visiting several times and now living here for the past week, I'm beginning to see why so many people seem to be moving here."

Staff writer Mary Fortune contributed to this story.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

Top states people are moving to with U-Haul

1. Tennessee2.Texas3. Florida4. Ohio5. Arizona6. Colorado7. Missouri8. Nevada9. North Carolina10. GeorgiaSource: U-Haul’s annual migration trends report. The states with the biggest net outmigration, in order, were California, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland and Oregon. Alabama ranked 22nd overall among the 50 states for migration growth.