There’s been anecdotal evidence of urban Americans moving out of the big cities and metropolitan areas en route to rural locations. But is it really happening? As it turns out, hard evidence is in short supply – or maybe it’s just too early to tell.
Realtor.com’s Market Hotness rankings for May indicates that out of nearly 20,000 ZIP Codes nationwide, urban ZIP Codes had a median improvement of 87 spots, suburban ZIP Codes had 404, but rural ZIP Codes experienced a median jump of 846 spots. Those rankings however do not necessarily represent actual sales. Instead, they track the number of page views for property listed on the website, and the number of days a listing remains active.
Whether that qualifies as a wholesale exodus from city to rural locations, and is supported by sales data, remains to be seen. But there’s little doubt the advent of COVID-19 has cast a new focus on the shift from cities to rural areas. If it is in fact happening, it’s an event unprecedented in American history. It will be a reversal of the centuries long trend of people moving from rural areas to cities and suburbs.
And if nothing else, it may be fun to contemplate possibility. After all, who hasn’t at least considered exiting the big city or the conformity of suburbia in favor of a more relaxed lifestyle in the country?
But how strong are the fundamentals supporting a shift to rural America? And what are the advantages and challenges such a move will present?
Does Moving to a Rural Area Make Sense?
No matter how exciting or romantic making a lifestyle change seems to be, it ultimately always comes down to the mechanics of making it work. Fortunately, there are plenty of compelling reasons to relocate to rural America, especially in light of COVID-19.
Fewer People Equals Less Infection Potential
According to the United Nations, 90% of reported coronavirus cases worldwide are concentrated in urban areas. That’s certainly been the case here in the US, where major cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas and Miami have been COVID-19 epicenters.
That outcome is hardly surprising. Greater population density makes social distancing float somewhere between difficult and impossible. This is especially true since there are large concentrations of people in offices, apartment complexes, public transportation, retail centers, gymnasiums, schools, hospitals, hotels and other public venues.
The lower population density of rural communities makes social distancing not only easier, but practically automatic. And thus far at least, the best defense against the virus has been to limit its entry into an area in the first place. Because of population disbursement, that’s just easier to do in rural areas.
At this point at least, no one is sure when or if COVID-19 will disappear. And there’s little doubt that an event as widespread as this virus has been has changed both lives and attitudes for a generation or more. Despite the many advantages of urban living, Americans may be increasingly ready to move to rural areas to minimize the possibility of COVID-19 or even a future pandemic.
A Cleaner Environment
This advantage covers a lot of territory. First, fewer people and lower population density means less traffic. Not only does it mean a less stressful driving experience, but it also translates into cleaner and better air quality.
But another major benefit is food. In urban areas, consumers pay a premium for organically grown food. In rural areas, at least those with extensive farming, organic is available all around. You may have a choice to purchase locally grown food either from farmers or small markets, or you can even choose to grow your own.
Less Expensive Housing
Many homeowners have cheered on the steady increases in the value of their homes in recent years, at least in many of the major metropolitan areas that have experienced steadily rising prices. But those value increases come at a cost.
First, housing becomes less affordable for first-time homebuyers. Second, it ultimately results in higher property taxes. And third, while you might fetch a nice profit on the sale of your current home, your next one is likely to be even more expensive.
Rural America, by and large, has not experienced the home price appreciation phenomenon seen in large metropolitan areas. Not only is it possible to purchase a home in a small rural community at a fraction of the cost of a similar property in a large metro area, but it’s also possible to buy land and have a custom home built.
The lower cost of either buying or building a home in a rural area will translate into lower mortgage payments. But if you’re selling a metropolitan home, you may also receive enough proceeds to make an all-cash purchase. That will eliminate your mortgage payment completely. And property taxes? In rural areas they’re typically a small fraction of those assessed in urban and suburban communities.
Remote Employment is Becoming More Common
This is the foundational feature that makes relocating to a rural community possible in a way that didn’t exist in the past. Though the ability to work remotely has been technologically possible for close to 20 years, it only became common during the corona virus shutdown this past spring. And as it turns out, it’s proving to be a benefit for both employee and employer.
“What started as a way to keep employees safe at home is now turning into the most popular work trend across the country, inspiring companies everywhere to step away from very large real estate construction projects and lease deals,” writes Forbes Contributor, Jennifer Castenson. “When office real estate is expensive and the country is facing an economic meltdown, and a work-from-home trend falls from the sky, it would be silly not to take it, right?”
Remote work may be another of the major changes supercharged by the coronavirus pandemic. Even after the crisis subsides, remote work may be established as a preferred work style for both employers and employees. That will act as an equalizer for the rural areas, since geography is less important in work-at-home arrangements than it is for on-site jobs.
Portable Banking and Investing through Online Platforms
Online banking and investing have become so common we’ve even stopped thinking about how convenient it truly is. But the ability to both manage your bank account and your investments from just about anywhere in the world is physically liberating. You no longer need to go to a bank branch or even call an investment broker to make a stock trade. Both your bank accounts and your investments will go with you wherever you go.
Like remote work arrangements, online banking and investing is a major equalizer for rural living. You can move from New York City to the middle of the rural Midwest, and not even give a thought to what you’ll do with your investment portfolio, because online investing means you don’t have to do anything at all.
Going Rural Comes with Very Specific Obstacles
Despite all the growing advantages that might favor a move to a rural location, the shift would not be without challenges. And those can be formidable.
Limited Broadband Access
One of the advantages inherent in living in an urban or suburban area is the ready availability of high-speed Internet. But it can never be taken for granted in rural areas.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), only 65% of Americans in rural areas have access to broadband internet, compared to 97% in urban areas.
Attempts to address the problem of a lack of broadband connection in rural areas has thus far been mostly piecemeal. Both the federal government and most state governments have multiple plans in the works to expand access into more remote regions. Companies like Verizon VZ and Charter have launched their own limited initiatives. But collectively, bringing broadband to rural America is moving at a snail’s pace.
For those who might contemplate moving to a rural area, access to broadband is an absolute necessity. It may even be the key to a sustained shift of the population from metropolitan areas to rural America.
“With better broadband connectivity and the ability to tele-commute from almost anywhere, businesses across the country are reconsidering the need for centralized and expensive downtown office buildings,” reports Forbes Contributor, Chris Dorsey. “Moreover, many workers and companies are realizing that employees are often more productive away from office settings so the idea of working from home—wherever that may be—has become a virtual national water cooler debate.”
If you’re contemplating a move to the rural area, finding a location with stable broadband access will be mission-critical. That will almost certainly be best accomplished by locating in or near a sizable rural community. The focus may need to be on a community that has either a university, a major regional hospital, or the kind of recreational amenities that draw in out-of-town tourists. Broadband access is much more common in those communities.
Lack of Urban Cultural Amenities
If you’ve lived in a large metropolitan area most or all of your life, you’re accustomed to going to the mall, the movies, concerts, sporting events, and eating at the restaurants of your choice. Those options won’t exist in a rural area and will be much more limited if they are.
Depending on how attached you are to the urban/suburban lifestyle, this can be a difficult transition to make. But it’s one you’ll have to evaluate carefully, especially as you choose the specific location you want to move to. For example, even if you’re an avid skier, you may find moving to a popular ski resort an exciting idea until you realize skiing is close to the only real amenity.
Education Options for Your Children
A popular motivation in moving from a city to a small town is getting your children into a community that’s both slower-paced and more personal. And while that may certainly be the case in a community you choose to relocate to, you may be sacrificing educational opportunities.
The quality of public schools in rural areas varies from one community to another, in much the same way as it does in metropolitan areas. But rural school districts don’t have the budgets to pay teachers, build and maintain school buildings, and offer supplies and equipment that suburban districts do.
Similarly, private school options may be few and far between. You may be forced to choose between the local public school or homeschooling your children.
But beyond public schools, there will likely also be a lack of close proximity to colleges and universities, unless you specifically choose to live in a college town.
Limited Housing Supply
Urbanites and suburbanites accustomed to having a wide selection of houses and apartments to choose from may be surprised to learn that variety is much more limited in most rural communities. According to RuralHome.org, the rate of new home construction in rural areas is well below the national average.
In addition, the number of homes for rent is only slightly more than half the national rate. More than half of all manufactured homes in the US are in rural areas. And since the housing stock in rural areas is generally older than it is for the rest of America, renovations, and even basic components like plumbing and electricity, may be either more limited or even nonexistent.
That may leave a metropolitan transplant with a choice of either buying an existing home and making extensive renovations or building a new home. Neither is insurmountable, and neither can be one of life’s greatest adventures. But it may also be a requirement if you plan to relocate to a rural community.
Few/Non-Existent Employment Opportunities if Your Remote Job Disappears
If you’re an online entrepreneur or freelancer working from home, geography won’t be a problem. But if your ability to move to a rural community depends on the remote status of your current job, you could face a crisis if either the job or its remote status come to an end.
While it’s becoming increasingly possible to find remote employment, it’s still not nearly as common as on-site arrangements. There’s a real possibility that a loss of your current job could require relocating back to a metropolitan area. You’ll need to have a plan in place for that possibility.
While the onset of COVID-19 has more people shifting from dreaming about relocating to a rural community to actively contemplating it, it will obviously require deep consideration and plenty of planning.
There are many compelling reasons to make the move, but the challenges are of a similar magnitude. It’s possible to plan around them, and you’ll need to do exactly that before making the jump.