Photo contributed by Susan Stout / Susan Stout

People across the country have been on the move as they look to reset their lives around work-from-anywhere possibilities and get closer to family. In the first half of 2021, rural areas experienced the highest migration gains, according to the National Association of Realtors, and 48% of people now prefer to live in a town or rural area, up from 39% in 2018, according to Gallup data. Susan Stout, a relocation specialist with Coldwell Banker Realty in Chattanooga, has been in the business of moving people around for decades. She spent 34 years at the Tennessee Valley Authority, many of them in recruiting and relocating employees, and jumped into real estate and relocation services after her retirement in 2015. The last two years have brought big demand for the Chattanooga area's affordable housing, natural beauty and slower pace of life, she says. "I do see a trend of people moving from California, Washington, New York and Illinois to our area," she says.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What trends are you seeing on the relocation front, and what factors are driving them?

A: People are moving more to the suburbs, and some of that is driven by they're home more, so they want a bigger yard, a bigger house. Urban living in a small condo or apartment and having to work from home, that started feeling pretty small. I do see a trend of people moving from California, Washington, New York and Illinois to our area. One commonality you'll hear is there's no income tax in our state. Taxes are very high in California – not just property taxes but car tag taxes, things you don't necessarily think about. They look for affordability, and Chattanooga particularly has been seen as very affordable. Even though housing prices have gone up, you still have low property taxes, no income tax, the car tags are low. It's cumulative if you put down all you're spending. Because people can work from home and work remotely, you're seeing people move to be closer to family. Their job might have been in California, but if they can work remotely they can decide to live anywhere. They don't lose on technology. A lot of articles promote Chattanooga as having the fastest internet in the country, and that brings people here. When I used to be in recruiting, I would tell my team December is the best month to recruit especially from up North because it's already snowing, and here it's usually not. The weather here is definitely a draw. The other thing that draws people here and what people like about Chattanooga is it's dog-friendly and bicycle friendly. You would be shocked at the number of people that when I talk to them about what's important to them, it's their dog and being able to walk the dog and let the dog out. It has to be suitable for a dog. A lot of people buy around their pets.

Q: How does our location near larger cities like Nashville and Atlanta influence those relocations?

A: In people moving here, there's also a trend in that they may start looking in Davidson County, around Nashville, but it's so expensive over there and such a lack of inventory that it drives them to the Chattanooga area. We're two hours from many places that are bigger or can be weekend getaways – Nashville, Atlanta, the Smokies.

Q: How will the shift away from job-driven relocations shape the industry?

A: A trend is going to be human resources departments in companies that tend to relocate people, are they still going to relocate people and if not, then what is their strategy and their relocation policy and how will they attract talent? Years ago, they would buy your house and you could move on and I might give you a relocation bonus. It would not be unusual to spend $100,000 to relocate somebody. Now, what is going to be the attraction? Will companies still do that? More companies are letting people work remote, especially in technology jobs or jobs where it's not necessarily important to be face-to-face or in the office.

Q: When you work with people looking for relocation help, what is your typical advice for making the move?

A: The first thing I do is try to get to know them, what their life is like, what's going to be important to them. If they have kids, I have the school discussion, and if they're retiring it's what do you want to be close to, and then it's a conversation about do you want new construction and why are you moving? I really try to understand what's going to be important to them.

Q: Are there any potential pitfalls of moving from a larger city to a smaller town that you try to address with people?

A: People moving here sometimes, if they're not that familiar with Chattanooga, they think Chattanooga is more rural than what it is. It is not surprising for someone to say 'I want two or three acres, I want to be close to an airport, I want to be close to downtown, close to shopping, but I need two or three acres, no neighbors.' Sometimes I think people are disappointed if that's their expectation, and it's hard to get them to consider other places – Dayton, even Cleveland's grown to where that's a little bit of a challenge. What I try to do is spend at least a day if not more just looking at different parts of town, and that could be as far as Dalton and Ringgold, that could be Cleveland, Dayton, that could be Dunlap. I try to say, if you want to be rural, I can take you to a rural area, but let's drive there and experience how that's going to feel. And then I think some people don't have good expectations of what comes with rural living, which can mean no rules sometimes about where a mobile home sits and things aren't kept up to the same standards they might expect. Maybe they live in a rural area in California or Washington, and that's a huge expectation management challenge. I do recommend that people, if they're not sure where they want to live and they've not had time come explore, you need to rent for six months and experience the different parts of Chattanooga.

Q: What's next for the industry and for relocation trends?

A: I think there's going to be less corporate referral, companies are going to say, 'I'm not going to relocate you, so you're on your own if you relocate.' I think you're going to continue to see people want to be in suburbs, and I think Chattanooga is going to continue to be a draw. We'll have low housing inventory – we saw kind of a blip up in September, but now the builders we work with are back to having trouble getting lumber, wanting to bump up prices, they're unsure what lumber will cost. Any gain we had there has diminished now. The only way things will cool off is if interest rates went up quite a bit.