- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

Diana and Mark Miller have moved four times since 2003. Mr. Miller’s jobs in finance have taken the couple from New Jersey to Michigan, Michigan to Florida, Florida back to Michigan and, about a year ago, to Northern Virginia.

The Millers are part of the 7 million to 10 million Americans who are part of the “relo economy.” Relos are workers and their families who relocate frequently for the breadwinner’s career. Certain parts of the Washington area are full of relos, working for corporations, the government and the largest relo group of them all, the U.S. military.

“You never get used to it,” says Ms. Miller, 48. She says she still considers New Jersey home because that is where she lived for most of her life.

Author Peter Kilborn has profiled the lives of serial relos in a new book, “Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America’s New Rootless Professional Class.” He says relos have changed the fabric of many American communities, from the types of houses that are built (new developments with modern amenities that can be sold quickly for the next move) to their community involvement (“yes” to soccer leagues and the PTA; “no” to local elections).

Several Washington-area communities rank among the top 25 “Relovilles” in the United States, Mr. Kilborn says. Franconia (No. 13), Leesburg (No. 16), Centerville (No. 17) and Gaithersburg (No. 23) have typical stats for Relovilles: high median income and home value, growing population, and high percentage of residents that lived somewhere else five years ago.

“In many cases, it is the same neighborhood but a different ZIP code,” Mr. Kilborn says. “People move to these places because they are similar — there is always an Applebee’s. They can enjoy the illusion of not moving when they are moving. Even the roads are laid out the same.”

While moving for a company is not new, the rapid growth in the global economy and the speed at which outer-ring suburbs developed during the recent housing boom are, Mr. Kilborn says. Because most relos are relatively well paid, they could make substantial down payments on new houses when moving and count on a healthy profit from selling their previous house.

Mr. Kilborn points out that home values in relo-fueled economies around Dallas, Denver and the District saw a much smaller downturn than in many other cities.

That’s not a universal truth, though, Ms. Miller says. Their Michigan home was in a new development in an area of the country hard hit by the recession. After they moved to Florida and then returned to the Michigan house, some houses had turned over twice and owners lost money in many cases. During that time, companies also became much more frugal in relocation packages and benefits, such as buying your old home if it did not sell, Ms. Miller says.

“Everyone I know [in my Michigan neighborhood] took a hit of at least $100,000,” she says. “Some companies are willing to pay some fees, and maybe temporary housing, but a lot won’t pay Realtor fees anymore.”

There are other sacrifices that come with being a serial relo. Often, spouses who have careers must put them on hold because of the transient nature of the other spouse’s career. Ms. Miller used to work in marketing and plans to return to it. Meanwhile, she says, “one of you has to sacrifice.”

Mr. Kilborn says he was struck by spouses — usually wives — when they spoke of the sacrifice of relocation. The effect is not just on careers, but on family life and friendships as well.

“Relo wives spoke with concern about the effects of rootlessness, loss and loneliness, both for their kids and themselves,” Mr. Kilborn says. “Many said ‘I have friends, but not a best friend.’ It can take years to make a best friend, someone with whom they can confide anything. They don’t have the time or the opportunity for that.”

The book also cites several studies that looked at the effects of repeat moves on children. A 1993 University of California study of 9,915 6- to 17-year-olds found that “frequent relocation was associated with higher rates of all measures of child dysfunction.” Other studies found that 23 percent of children who moved frequently repeated a grade versus 12 percent of children who never moved or moved infrequently; and that frequent movers have a higher propensity to be drawn in by the “wrong” crowd (which may seem welcoming to an insecure newcomer).

Ms. Miller, who does not have children, says she approached the move to Northern Virginia a little differently than previous moves. Instead of buying in a new “Reloville,” where families constantly are moving in and out, the Millers bought an older home in an established neighborhood in Reston.

“We have a lot of neighbors who have been here since the neighborhood was built decades ago,” Ms. Miller says. “I like that better. I can walk to the farmer’s market. When we moved here, almost every neighbor came by to introduce themselves.”

Author Joel Kotkin, who studies economic, geographic and social trends, says the heyday of relos and Relovilles might already have come and gone. In fact, he says, the number of families relocating annually actually is down from 14 percent in 2004 to 10 percent in 2008. Mr. Kotkin says a combination of high-tech accessibility and company cost-cutting may mean more people can stay put.

Even at IBM — the computer corporation famous for moving executives around for a generation — as much as 40 percent of the work force operates full time in home offices or remotely at client sites, Mr. Kotkin says. That means a lot of frequent flier miles, but not necessarily an outright cross-country move every few years.

“Computers have allowed people to do their jobs wherever,” Mr. Kotkin says. “I have found very often if someone has a responsibility of a geographic area, they can do most of it online and go there in person occasionally.”

Mr. Kilborn says the recession has had an impact on relocation, at least for the short term.

“Companies are always re-evaluating their relocation policies,” he says. “As the recession continued, they sent more employees on relatively short-term assignments (for less than a year). The families stayed behind and the companies avoided the costs of moving the family and helping with the sale and purchase of homes.”

Many global companies also are using local executives to fill top ranks in foreign headquarters, as well as expanding features such as digital teleconferencing, Mr. Kilborn says. In the end, however, nothing can substitute for face time.

“As the global economy rebounds and opens new business opportunities, the roster of relos will surge to new levels,” says Mr. Kilborn. “They always have in previous recessions.”

Should the Millers relocate again, Ms. Miller is ready. She has moving down to a science — the timeline of things that need to get done and a folder system for a three-step process of selling, moving and buying.

“I hope to be here for a while,” she says. “But you never know what the future holds.”

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