Retreat from some areas will become unavoidable under intensifying climate change. Existing deployments of managed retreat are at small scale compared to potential future needs, leaving open questions about where, when, and how retreat under climate change will occur. Here, we analyze more than 40,000 voluntary buyouts of flood-prone properties in the United States, in which homeowners sell properties to the government and the land is restored to open space. In contrast to model-based evaluation of potential future retreat, local governments in counties with higher population and income are more likely to administer buyouts. The bought-out properties themselves, however, are concentrated in areas of greater social vulnerability within these counties, pointing to the importance of assessing the equity of buyout implementation and outcomes. These patterns demonstrate the challenges associated with locally driven implementation of managed retreat and the potential benefits of experimentation with different approaches to retreat.