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Relocating your Home folder in OSX 10.5.x Leopard and later

by M. Christopher Stevens

A Historical Perspective

In August of 2003, I wrote my first "Quick Tip" for OWC - a "how to" for relocating a user's Home folder to a different partition on the same computer. At that time, the genesis of the project was rooted in the 8GB boot partition limit for OSX on the Beige G3's and the "Wallstreet" PowerBook, of which I was an aficionado.

Since that rather low-tech first attempt (which I don't recommend any more), that article has been adjusted and reapplied a number of times, but the overall effect has been the same: You can overcome the limited amount of space on your boot drive by moving your Home folder to a second larger internal or external drive.

Many Uses

Relocating your Home folder is actually a fairly useful procedure, which can be applied in many situations. Sure, it's great if you have an older system with the aforementioned 8GB partition limit, but it is also applicable to much more modern machines.

  • Multiple Macs, One Home
    For those advanced users who require access to the same data among various Macs, its possible to move your Home folder to a high-capacity portable hard drive, such as the OWC Mercury On-The-Go Pro. Then, use the "Redirection" portion of this process to assign your Home folder to a user on each machine you're going to use this drive with. Once that's done, you can bring your Home folder to whatever machines you use - a "mobile Home", if you will.
  • More Space
    Is the drive filling up on your Mac mini or iMac? Sure, you could install a new drive, but it is a difficult process, and professional installation can be expensive. With this process, though, it's easier and less expensive to simply move your Home folder/folders (which take up the bulk of the file space on your drive) to a larger external drive, such as an OWC miniStack or OWC Mercury Elite Pro.
  • Keep Your Data Safe
    If you're working on a lot of important data that you just can't risk losing, why not move your Home folder to a RAID for extra protection? Simply plug in an OWC Thunderbay 4 RAID to your desktop Mac and move your Home folder there. Should a drive fail, your data will still be safe while you get a replacement.

This process has had applications bounded only by the imaginations of those who were implementing them.

Familiar Faces in Different Places

Apple changed the locations of some functions when Leopard came out. Among them was the option for changing the location of a user’s Home Folder. It turns out that this process had been conveniently moved to the Accounts (later Users & Groups) preference pane. Fortunately, in the process, some of the changes to the pane made this whole procedure a lot easier than it was before.

So, without further ado (I know… too late…) let's get to moving stuff around.

Makin' Copies

Description automatically generatedThe first big step in this process is actually copying your Home folder over to the other drive. Unfortunately, a simple drag-and-drop in OS X doesn't quite work, as you run into a number of permissions and ownership issues. Back in the day, I simply booted into OS 9 to do the drag and drop, and suffered no ill effects. However, OS 9 died a loooooooong time ago, so there needs to be a better way to do it.

Though other options do exist, I found that using the ditto command in Terminal serves this purpose nicely, as it is efficient, effective and easy. The syntax of the command, as we'll be using it here, is as follows:

TIP

There's a lot that can be mistyped here, but you can reduce the chances of making a mistake by doing the following.

  1. Type ditto -V (followed by a space) into Terminal.
  2. Drag your Home folder into the Terminal window; the path to the folder should show, with a space after it.
  3. Create a new folder where you'd like your new Home folder to be, and give it the same name as your Home folder.
  4. Drag this new folder into the Terminal window.
  5. Hit Return.

ditto -V /source /destination

There's actually quite a bit here, so let's break it down a little.

ditto - this is the command itself

-V - this flag is optional, but I find it useful, as it allows you to see what's being copied, and verifies the command is still running, rather than just waiting for the next command prompt.

/source - This is the path to the Home folder you're moving. On a stock setup, it will be /Users/username

/destination - This is the path to where you wish to put your Home folder. As you will likely be moving the data to a different volume, the path would be /Volumes/Drive/location path/username. Keep in mind that spaces in any drive or folder name need to be preceded by a backslash (\). For example, a drive named "External Drive" would show as /Volumes/External\ Drive/

When I did mine, it appeared as ditto -V /Users/mcs /Volumes/Internal\ RAID/Users/mcs

This copied my Home folder (mcs) from the main Users folder to a folder called "Users" on the drive called "Internal RAID". Your command should look similar, but your path names may vary, depending on the names of your drives and folders. Once you have it entered, simply hit the Return key, and the Terminal window will quickly fill with the names of the files that are being copied. As hypnotizing as that is, you can probably benefit from finding something more productive to do while the files copy over.

Redirecting Information

TIP

There's a simple way of making sure you've redirected everything properly.

  1. Before you change the account information in the Accounts Preference Pane, navigate to the Desktop folder for the new Home folder you just created.
  2. Make a new folder called "It Worked!" inside this Desktop folder.
  3. Go through the steps listed below.
  4. When you log in to your relocated account, you should have a folder on your desktop called "It Worked!". If you do, the process was done correctly, and you can delete this new folder.

Now comes the tricky part. In OS versions before Leopard, this is where we'd fire up NetInfo Manager and redirect things that way. Alas, as I alluded to earlier, this program no longer exists. Fortunately, its functionality was split up among other applications. In terms of this project, the information we need was moved to a "hidden" option in the Accounts (or Users & Groups in later OS versions) Preference Pane.

Open up the Accounts pane in System Preferences. In the lower left corner, you will notice that there's a "closed lock" icon.

Enter in the username/password of an Administrator's account on your computer (Sorry, my info won't work on your machine.😌) Once you have, the icon will show an "open lock." At this point, you may now right-click (or Control-click) on the account you have moved. A menu should appear with a single item: "Advanced Options…", which you should select.

Once selected, a sheet will expand, containing the information for this account (yours may look slightly different, depending on the OS version you’re using). The only thing you need to change is the "Home Directory" option. To change it, simply click on the "Choose…" button.

Clicking on the "Choose…" button will bring up the standard Open/Save dialog box. Navigate to your new Home folder and select it and click the "Open" button. You should notice that your Home Directory info has changed to reflect the new location. Click "OK" (confirming if you need to).

Restart and Go!

At this point, all the "moving" is done. To use your new Home folder, simply restart and log in as usual. If you followed my tip above, and your other steps were performed correctly, you should have a folder that says "It Worked!" on the Desktop. If not, go back to the beginning of this section and try it again.

Once you have successfully moved your Home Folder, you can continue using your Mac as you always have. Now, though, you'll have the space, portability and/or security that comes from relocating to a different volume.