By Greg Toppo and Paul Overberg
REISTERSTOWN, Md. - Everything must go at Baltimore Thrift, including the store.
After nine years in this bustling Baltimore suburb and a year and a half as the shop's owner, 42-year-old Larry Elavsky is selling the place, a sort of hybrid antique/collectible store, with every last item in it: the worn Armstrong baby grand piano, the Star Trek figurines, the Charmed wristwatch and the Eddie Rabbitt 45s. Elavsky plans to move back to Orlando, where he spent his teens and 20s and where his family still lives.
Elavsky has company. Americans, new statistics suggest, are moving again.
New U.S. Census data show that the great slowdown in migration caused by the recession is starting to give way. In 2012, "domestic migration" was as high as it's been in the past five years - nearly 16.9 million people moved between counties, with long-distance interstate moves accounting for about 7 million of those, up nearly 5% over 2010.
Like Elavsky, Americans are once again setting their sights on their favorite Sun Belt places, like Florida, Arizona and Nevada, said demographer Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire, who crunched the interstate migration numbers.
In a sense, Johnson said, the recession had the effect of "freezing people in place" as they waited for the economy to improve and their homes to recover value. The 2012 figures may not represent an actual recovery, but it's "at least a thawing" as conditions begin to improve again, he said.
In a few states such as New York and Massachusetts, Johnson found, the thaw has begun in earnest. New York state lost about 136,000 people in 2012. In Massachusetts, the net loss was about 15,600 people.
The National Association of Realtors (NAR), a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, notes that the median price of an existing home this year rose to $212,100. As recently as 2011, it was $166,200, nearly $46,000 less. "When you're retiring, that's a lot of money," said NAR economist Jed Smith.
Many homeowners "didn't want to sell a house that they viewed as low in price," Smith said. "Now that the prices are up, away we go."
Jasmine Wanek, 26, a Baltimore conservation biologist, lost her parents a few years ago, then watched as their Forest Hill, Md., home, north of the city, sat on the market for a year with no buyers. Her Realtor even suggested at one point that they throw in one of the family's vehicles, a 1999 Isuzu Rodeo, to sweeten the deal. Wanek took the house off the market last spring. Then, after putting it up for sale again a few weeks ago, she got three offers, one of which she accepted. Closing day is Nov. 15.
She's moving to Daytona Beach, Fla., to move in with her fiancé, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines. They'll probably move again in a few months - he has a tiny, one-bedroom apartment a few minutes from the beach, and she's looking for a job down there.
Meanwhile, Wanek is working to settle her parents' estate - she posted a Craigslist ad offering their "barely used" Toro snowblower for $150. She's also trying to figure out how to get two pets - Harley, her 15-year-old West Highland terrier, and Tomato, her 7-year-old red-footed tortoise - down to Florida with her.
"Surprisingly, the dog and the tortoise are making things more complicated," she said.
Wanek grew up in suburban Harford County, attended the University of Maryland and still has many friends here, but said, "I didn't want to stay in one place my whole life. ... This is a good time for me to check out something else."
Like Wanek and Elavsky, as Americans start moving again, they're abandoning places like Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati and New York, older Northeastern or Midwestern cities that actually benefited from the migration freeze.
Before the recession, Johnson noted, about 50,000 New Yorkers moved to Florida each year. During the worst of the recession, only about half as many did. Actually, Johnson noted, in many Northeast cities, those losses most years had been offset by international immigration from Europe and Asia - but the recession took a bite out of that, too.
Now that the thaw is upon us, places like metropolitan New York, Buffalo and Rochester are starting to see more people leave again, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Census data: In 2009, the Baltimore metro area, which includes the city and surrounding counties, gained 25 people per 10,000 residents from other states. Last year, it lost 36 per 10,000.
Meanwhile, places like the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area, which had a net loss of migrants in 2009, added them in 2012. Likewise in Las Vegas, Jacksonville and San Jose, among a few others.
Elavsky, the thrift store owner, was born in Ohio, but lived in Orlando for 16 years, until he was 32. His mother, father and sister still live there. The store is just a side project - Elavsky sells construction equipment for a living, and his 17-year-old daughter, Isabel Tereshchenko, runs the store most days after school.
He's had at least 10 potential buyers - Elavsky recently reduced the price to $20,000 - but a few had difficulties getting a loan to buy the place. One hopeful prospect is "very interested" and is waiting to hear from the bank. But post-recession, he said, many potential buyers are finding that financing is tight.
Getting a loan is more difficult on the other end of the migration route, too, said Frank Kowalski, a Miami Realtor who's also a regional vice president for the Realtors association. The tightening of credit is slowing home-buying rates a bit, but he said all of the states in the region are seeing an uptick in sales.
Home prices are still lower than they were during the recession, Kowalski said, with many homeowners "sitting and waiting these last four or five years" for prices to return to pre-recession levels. But he said a few signs are promising: He was in Fort Lauderdale earlier this week, where local Realtors were actually talking about a housing shortage.
"There is a new urgency" in the area that he hasn't seen in years, he said. Home-building rates are up - contracts in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area rose 67% last year, according to McGraw Hill Construction, a trade journal, with residential construction up 87% over 2011.
To get a sense of the change, all you have to do is look out on the Miami skyline, Kowalski said, where his favorite kind of migratory bird has returned. Cranes - the construction kind - dot the Miami skyline. "The Florida bird is back," he said.