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Moving On
More residents are leaving New Jersey than coming in these days, and factors like weather and taxes are leading some people to flee for Florida or other states.

by Matt Cosentino

Mike Hanan may have been a lifelong South Jersey resident up until a few months ago, but Florida has always held a special place in his heart. Considering how short and relatively cheap the flights are, the Sunshine State has long been his go-to vacation spot, especially during the frigid Northeast winters.

Lounging on the beach in St. Petersburg during one of those getaways in 2021, Hanan looked at his wife Lauren and suddenly a light bulb went off. Why not make it permanent and move down for good?

They took the plunge this summer for multiple reasons, not the least of which was the chance to soak up sunshine all year long.

“I’ve never been a fan of cold weather,” says Hanan, a Washington Township native. “Usually I just hibernate in my house for the most part, and then when spring and summer come along, I’m so busy because I try to jam everything into one [time of year]. So I’m looking forward to an endless summer.”

Clarksboro residents Erica and Joe Lawrence (their names have been changed because they wished to remain anonymous), the parents of an 8-year-old daughter, had long been contemplating a move to Florida as well. They were finally inspired to act last winter.

“We always talked about retiring at some point and going south, and we thought whenever our daughter graduated from high school would be the easiest time,” she says. “We love warm weather and every winter that goes by we say, ‘Why are we still here?’ We get so depressed and the whole family is stuck inside, and we’re all outside people. My husband’s job went fully remote in December and he got the opportunity to work from anywhere, so we started really considering it.

“Our daughter was only in second grade, so we thought if we did it now then we could avoid her getting serious with all of her relationships. … That was a huge decision—it was either now or in 10 years. We looked at each other and said, ‘Can we wait until she graduates high school?’ And we both said, ‘No.’”

The Hanans and Lawrences are far from alone in deciding to flee the Garden State, and weather joins high taxes, politics and job opportunities as the reasons most often cited. According to the United Van Lines 45th Annual National Movers Study released in early 2022, New Jersey was the state with the most outbound moves in 2021, with more residents moving out than into the state for the fourth year in a row.

“Can you blame them?” asks Anne Koons of BHHS Fox & Roach in Cherry Hill, who has been a realtor for nearly 40 years. “The average person in the state of New Jersey pays $9,000 or more in real estate taxes. That’s sick. It’s your real estate taxes and your income taxes. If you’re successful and make money, the state of New Jersey goes out of its way to tax you. … You might as well be living in California because the taxes are basically the same.”

High taxes in New Jersey were definitely part of the dilemma for the Lawrences, along with other factors. Although they loved their neighborhood in Gloucester County and the school their daughter attended, they moved this summer to Lakewood Ranch, Florida, on the Gulf Coast.

“When we were going through COVID we talked about how we didn’t love the politics in New Jersey anymore and how things were handled, and just the direction that Jersey was going,” she says. “That was another impetus for us to consider it more, because Florida was a lot more open. … The taxes are crazy in New Jersey too. My husband is a veteran so he gets even more of a tax break in Florida, so it’s going to be substantially less. We’re very excited about that. There’s also no state income tax so the paycheck is going to be nicer.”

Hanan also cites the high property taxes in New Jersey and the lack of a state income tax in Florida as reasons for his move, but his original plan was to stick it out for five more years, until he saw how bidding wars were driving up the home prices in the area. The market has since cooled off, but he and his wife pulled the trigger at the right time.

“That was the main thing that turned it into a one-year plan,” he says. “We actually did a refinance a couple of months back and we got our house appraised. … We decided now was a good time to get a good price for the house so we put it on the market, we showed it for a day and started getting offers. So we decided to sell high, ride it out and rent for a little bit, and then buy when the market comes back down, but we actually ended up buying sooner than we thought.”

The Hanans were able to take the money from their sale and use it as a down payment on a home in the Tampa area. He had already been working remotely for years and she found a new job in her field.

New Jerseyans heading to Florida is nothing new, of course, but traditionally they wait until retirement. What’s different now is that younger couples like the Hanans or people with children in school like the Lawrences are making the move, despite the appeal of this state’s public education system.

“It used to be that when they turned 65, they would sell their house and move out of state,” Koons says. “But now, because of the pandemic and everything that went down, people can work remotely. So I have a lot of clients in their 30s and 40s who are saying, ‘I’m out of here.’

“They’re moving to Pennsylvania, Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Texas, the Carolinas. We’re not just talking 65 and older now, we’re talking 30 to 50. They say we have the best school systems, but there are plenty of other states with good school systems.”

Josh Burkhardt was 24 and fresh out of college himself when he surprised his friends by leaving South Jersey and heading to Vero Beach, Florida, which he has called home now for the past seven years.

“I would say it was a combination of two things: The first was that I was born in New Jersey and grew up in Woodbury, a small town, and that was all I ever knew. I was just looking for something new,” he says. “The second would be the weather. I was just tired of the erratic weather in New Jersey, the cold winters, the gloomy, rainy, snowy [conditions]. Really, the third thing was for financial reasons. Property taxes are crazy in New Jersey, there’s a state income tax in New Jersey, and I knew there were other states out there where that wasn’t the case. It was a combination of those factors.”

He was receiving negative feedback on the job prospects in Florida but quickly lined up multiple interviews and within a month had a job in his chosen field of IT. His wife Ariel, also from Woodbury, was able to pursue her bachelor’s degree at Keiser University after their move.

Burkhardt says there continues to be plenty of opportunities in both white-collar and blue-collar jobs for anyone who is worried about the job market outside of South Jersey/Philadelphia.

“This is just based on statistics, but more people in the North and specifically the Northeast have college educations, so if you’re a younger person and you’re moving to a Southern state and you have an education, that’s going to separate you from other individuals,” he says. “But if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree in an in-demand field, you’re still probably better off down here because there’s so many labor jobs with the development they’re doing [along with] landscaping and pools. Everything is year-round here; in New Jersey, things shut down. I have buddies who are in unions and in the winter, they just sit back and chill because there’s not much they can do, but down here it’s year-round because the weather allows it.”

Burkhardt’s sister has since moved to Florida and his father will eventually join them in the state after he retires. He also convinced two of his best friends, 31-year-old twin brothers Matt and Mike Lavin, to give the Sunshine State a try.

Matt left New Jersey first in 2017 and hasn’t even been back home to visit. He has found the stability he was missing in his hometown of Woodbury and loves the warm weather.

“Before I moved here, I used to tell people that I loved Jersey because of all the different seasons, but moving here made me realize that you can’t beat good weather all year round,” he says. “I don’t miss the cold weather at all.

“It’s been a lot of fun. I’m really happy with my job and living in Florida. I got a dog when I moved down here and I go to the dog park often, and I can golf whenever I want to. I love Jersey, don’t get me wrong, but Florida will forever be my favorite state. Everything just worked out when I moved here. I don’t know if it was a coincidence but it’s just a much happier place to live.”

Not that these transplants don’t miss some aspects of home. Food is definitely near the top of the list.

“Jersey has better food, I’ll say that,” Lavin says. “The pizza is not that great here, although it’s not terrible like a lot of people say. I tried to get a cheesesteak when I first moved here and the lady had to get her manager. He said, ‘What are you trying to order?’ I said, ‘A cheesesteak.’ He said, ‘Oh, you mean a chopped steak with cheese.’ So I do miss good cheesesteaks, but it’s not that big of a deal at the end of the day. Certainly not enough to make me go back.”

Burkhardt, who returns to South Jersey often, doesn’t get the access to big cities like he did when he lived here. “Living in Woodbury was cool because if you wanted to hop over the bridge and see an Eagles game or a Phillies game, it was a quick 15-minute ride,” he says. “Here in Vero, Orlando is about an hour and a half away and West Palm Beach is about an hour and a half away as well. If you’re looking for nightlife or stuff to do, you don’t have a ton in Vero Beach. You only have your typical stuff like you would have in Deptford, bowling alleys and movie theaters and stuff like that.”

Hanan is also a big sports fan and will miss attending games regularly, but is confident he’ll be able to still follow his favorite teams.

“We can get the NFL ticket and the MLB ticket,” he says. “That’s one of the things I think is a lot easier these days: With all of the streaming and stuff, I think it’s a lot easier to keep up with everything going on. I’ll never not be an Eagles fan. The Phillies have spring training in Clearwater. Every year I watch on TV and see people sitting in the stands in shorts and I kick myself for not going. Now I’ll have an easy opportunity to go to spring training and hopefully some friends will come visit.”

Clearly, there are convincing reasons to leave New Jersey these days, and the state has some work to do in order to reverse the migration trends. Koons is not optimistic that will happen.

“They keep taxing the people and after a while people get fed up and leave,” she says. “I guarantee you in the next 10 to 15 years, New Jersey is going to be made up of very, very rich people and very, very poor people. The middle class is going to leave.”