How To Choose The Right Rural Neighborhood
When you buy a home in a rural area, it’s much more of a lifestyle decision than deciding to settle down in a city or even close to a city. And if you aren’t deeply familiar with the place where you want to move, then you’ll need to research what it’s really like to live there and decide whether it’s for you.
There are a lot of amazing advantages to living in a rural place — the wide-open views, the easy access to nature, the tight-knit communities. There are also plenty of inconveniences — limited utility options, fewer job options with longer commutes, not as many opportunities to grab takeout when you don’t feel like cooking.
So it pays to really understand the rural area where you want to buy a home, especially if you don’t already live there (and if you live there but don’t already own a home). There’s a lot you can do to an individual house to help it fit your lifestyle, but if the surrounding area isn’t a good fit, remodeling it isn’t quite as simple.
How do you make sure that the far-flung hamlet where you’re about to buy is a place you’ll enjoy and where you’ll thrive? By conducting your research, talking to experts, crunching the numbers, and narrowing down your options until you have one that sounds like home.
If you don’t already live in the rural area where you want to buy a home — or if it’s been a long time since you’ve lived there — then it’s a good time to do some real soul-searching about why you want to live there. Many people dream about moving closer to nature without ever having the experience of living it … then arrive and realize that they don’t actually enjoy it.
There’s no shame in making a mistake about the kind of place and home that will make you happy, but it’s probably best to be sure when the time comes to put money down and sign mortgage loan paperwork. You will be in the home for at least two years if you want to avoid capital gains taxes, and that can feel like a very long time for someone who feels out of place. So consider renting for at least a year (to experience all the seasons) before you decide to buy in a rural area.
Warnings aside, living in a more removed locale is perfect for someone who wants plenty of space to garden, close access to camping, fishing, and other recreational opportunities, and the people who feel the same way you do about the area.
Draw up a fantasy list of everything that you want in a small community — but with a dose of realism in the sense that you’re only including features and amenities that you really want, not things that you think you should want. Every area is going to have perks and deficits, and it’s up to you to decide now what your ideal place to live is like and then see how close you can get.
If you’ve already lived in or around the area (or in another rural area), this should help you with your list. Consider what you enjoyed about your time there and what was different about each place where you lived, if applicable.
While you’re at it, think about any dealbreakers that emerged while you were living in rural places. What did you not like or appreciate about those circumstances? What annoyed you, and what made you grit your teeth and vow to move as soon as possible, if anything?
Some schools in rural areas are top-notch, and some aren’t as up to speed as most of the state’s city counterparts. It’s always a good idea to check out the schools where you’re hoping to move in order to determine whether they’re going to fit your needs as a homeowner.
You might not have kids at all, or your kids might be in college — but it’s still a big mistake to ignore the schools in your area of choice. School quality is tied to home prices, whether you like it or not, and you don’t want to eliminate families with younger (or older) kids from the pool of households who might be interested in buying your place when you eventually move on.
You can find general school ratings online, but bear in mind that some providers might not give you the granular information you need — like the individual ratings for elementary, middle, and high schools, and background context that shows how the schools in your area measure against the rest of the state. The more information you have, the better-educated you’ll be when the time comes to make an offer on a home, and that never hurts.
If you do have school-age kids, then it’s extra-smart to do an additional layer of research when you’re narrowing down your areas of choice. Test scores only tell part of the story when it comes to any school. Call schools and ask about technology implementation, safety policies, how they manage struggling students, the availability of gifted programs, inclusivity efforts, and any other areas of concern that you might have.
Commerce and traffic
Even if you used to live in the area (or currently do), don’t assume that you know everything there is to know when it comes to the traffic that flows through and the businesses that place their stakes. It’s always smart to get a read on the area where you might be moving so that you understand where the retail stores and restaurants are and how far you might have to drive if you want to buy something else.
Start with the the appropriate government and Chamber of Commerce entities for the town closest to where you want to move or county where you’re hoping to buy. You can see which businesses have joined the Chamber of Commerce site online as well as peruse community events and sometimes find additional resources that will help you learn about the area, like historical and nature societies. Ask about planned developments (current or potential) and traffic projects. Ask about county facilities in the works, too, like rec centers, theaters, parks, or other public amenities.
Ask about population and how many people have moved into and away from the county. You’ll get a sense of whether the traffic (if any) to and from work are going to get better or worse, and you won’t be surprised when your commute changes accordingly.
You’ll also want to look at how the area’s public transportation network hooks up with any larger metro areas and how easy it might be to use. Some city transportation systems range an hour or more outside the city center, and it never hurts to know where the closest bus depot or train station is.
If the community has a Nextdoor neighborhood or Facebook group (if you don’t yet live in the area) set up, then it might be a good time to start asking questions there. Rural communities tend to be tight-knit communities, and you might find a carpool group, general contractor, plumber, or dog-walker if you play your cards right. (And because they tend to be tight-knit communities, it always pays to mind your manners on social media — because you might be running into your group-members and neighbors later at the grocery store.)
Most of the time, crime isn’t something you need to worry too much about in a rural area, but it never hurts to get a realistic picture of crime rates and types in the place where you want to buy a home.
Just like school ratings, there are a number of platforms that offer crime ratings for different areas — and that’s a good thing to know when you’re about to buy a home.
It’s always smart to understand exactly what the maps are showing, and that’s especially true for crime ratings and even more especially true in a rural area. Oftentimes, those ratings are based on crime reports rather than filed charges or convictions secured, so the crime ratings platforms don’t always tell the full story. This gets more complicated in a rural area, where a quiet street might still be rated “high” for crime in a county that sees very little criminal activity. It’s not a bad idea to check with any friends who live in the area or a real estate professional to get deeper insights into how safe an area and its surrounding county (or counties) might be.
And nobody wants to think about being rushed to the hospital, but you might want to think about it before you buy a home, and that goes triple for a rural home, where the best option for a hospital could be more than an hour’s drive away. What’s the local average emergency response time, and which hospital would be the go-to if you had to call for emergency services? Is there an urgent care center that’s closer? What are its hours?
Those are good questions to be able to answer before you decide that a suburb is for you, especially if you or someone in your household has a health issue that requires specific care. Level I Trauma Care centers are equipped to handle most medical needs, including emergencies.
Utilities and facilities
If you live in the city or suburbs, it’s pretty easy to get your home hooked up to the internet. In a rural area, though, that might be hit-or-miss depending on the service providers — it’s possible that your best option is a satellite or even (gasp!) dial-up. (Yes, dial-up still exists and is used where nothing else is available.)
And that’s just the beginning. You probably won’t have access to sewer infrastructure, which usually means a septic system; that can be a new experience for some homeowners. Depending on where you live, it might also be common for homes to be heated using propane, which you need to buy in a big tank (and factor into any monthly or annual budgets that you have, because they aren’t cheap).
Even if you’ve lived in a rural area before, if you’ve never owned a home there, this is where you might wind up getting stuck without some expert help. Talk to your friends who are homeowners and any agents who specialize in the area — they’ll have a good idea of which utilities are widely available, which are difficult to obtain, and also be able to weigh in on other financial factors you might not have considered. (For example, sometimes rural areas have limited options for homeowners’ insurance providers, especially if there have been recent disasters like wildfires or floods in the county.)
Spend the night
If you can and you’re not already renting nearby, it’s wise to try to spend at least one night (and preferably closer to a week) in the area where you want to buy. In this era of vacation rentals, hopefully you can find one in the appropriate place and can spend the week navigating where to shop for groceries, how you’ll get to work, where you can walk the dog, and whether the sounds and smells are welcome or repugnant.
Take some drives around the area to familiarize yourself with where things are and decide whether you love it or loathe it. Get to know where the businesses are, find the trailheads, and explore the parks.
Maybe you’ll learn that you don’t really want to live very far away from the closest major highway because it reduces your commute significantly. Or maybe you’ll discover a local farm growing something that makes you sneeze incessantly. Whatever the case, it’s best to figure it out before you’ve plopped down your (nonrefundable!) earnest money.
Those are just a couple of reasons why it’s especially wise to test out living in a rural area for a while, but seven days is the absolute minimum. That way you’ll get a chance to see if the sleepy hamlet where you’re casting your eye turns into a weekend getaway for 48 hours every week or whether there are any other semi-regular rhythms or changes.
If the area or county has any festivals or events, try to visit those, too, to get a feel for what the locals take pride in and how they celebrate.
Get the numbers
You might know that home values are rising all over the country, but understanding the historical price growth in your specific area of interest will give you a better idea as to whether the spot is ahead of or behind the typical trajectory — and what your sales opportunities might look like in a few years when you’re looking to move on.
Likewise, you probably want to investigate the rate of homeownership and even the job opportunities in any areas you’re considering. Homeowners tend to invest more in their properties than a landlord would, and suburbs with high rates of homeownership tend to be up-and-coming or well-established neighborhoods where you’re more likely to see healthy home price growth. And if the biggest nearby employer is about to shut its doors, that might be relevant to your decision to buy (or the offer you end up making on the home).
If you’re not sure where to find those numbers (especially reliable ones), talk to a local real estate professional.