Working from home isn’t exactly new—for years, some people have done it at least part-time, and many have made a living in location-independent jobs in the fields of IT, freelance writing, virtual assistant or call center work, and as entrepreneurs. But the abrupt shift to remote work in 2020 has led many to start thinking about moving away from the urban site of their offices for good.
Over the last year, the rate of people working as digital nomads rose by 49%—and while you may not be ready to give up your home to work remotely from the road full-time, you may have considered relocating. Small towns are one option that can offer a dramatic change from frantic city life. Cheaper housing and the chance for more contact with nature may be some benefits, but the downsides also should be thoroughly considered before making the leap to small-town living.
Home Hunting Will Look a Lot Different
Whether you’ve got a family or are on your own, moving to a small town can be one way to achieve the space you crave. Housing is one of the biggest costs for the average American, but it doesn’t have to be. Small towns can offer expansive space at a low cost, especially compared with metropolitan areas where you’ll pay a premium for every square foot.
Take, for example, Los Angeles County, in California, where housing can cost $1,663/month for a two-adult, two-child household. That same household might only spend $530 each month in Burke County, Georgia. That monthly savings could mean the difference between renting a condo, purchasing a home, socking away significant savings, or being able to splurge on family vacations more often.
Homeownership is still very much viewed as the “American Dream,” and moving to a small town can help you accomplish it. Although the national median home price in 2020 was $272,500, that number can drop significantly based on location. West Virginia, for example, had a median home value of under $115,000 at the end of 2020.
Lower-cost housing in a smaller town could make owning a home affordable for you for the first time.
However, depending on where you look, it could also be difficult to find a home that suits your needs. Rural areas, by definition, have fewer homes, and the ones you may find have a higher likelihood of being run down than in urban areas.
Job Hunting May Look Different
The population growth of U.S. non-metro areas peaked in 2006, then slid precipitously and shifted from positive to negative in response to rising unemployment, housing-market challenges, and other factors, according to the Department of Agriculture (USDA). People leave their small towns for many reasons, but there is one overarching motivation: The pursuit of a better standard of living. This often comes in the form of increased employment opportunities.
If you aren’t already working remotely (or if your partner isn’t), you’ll need to consider how likely it is that you can find work in your field upon relocating and if it will pay as much as you’re used to. Job scarcity has long been an issue in rural locations, with small towns facing higher unemployment than their urban counterparts. And if the town you’re considering relies on a single large employer, such as a factory, or otherwise leans heavily on a sole source of income, such as tourism, it and its communities become more vulnerable to changes in the economy.
If you haven’t yet secured a remote job, you may want to do so before you move.
Your Budget Will Change
Your cost of living will likely go down when moving to a small town. Most life expenses in larger cities tend to be higher—which means things like groceries, healthcare, child care, and taxes are more costly than if you lived in a more rural location.
On the other hand, your transportation costs may increase when living in a small town, as offerings like public transit are limited and reliance on personal vehicles increases. You’ll also want to factor in the costs of traveling for vacations or seeing family; living in a small town can mean the airport is farther, so it’ll cost you more to travel, in terms of both time and money. And if you need to fly from a regional airport rather than a hub, you’ll have to contend with those often-higher airfares, too.
Entertainment Will Likely Be Outdoors
Within a big city, entertainment options are plentiful. New York is famous for Broadway, quirky shops, and clubs that never close. Los Angeles has urban sprawl filled with everything from busking entertainers to the Santa Monica Pier to Disneyland.
You won’t find those kinds of immersive entertainment in a small town. You will, however, have a chance to feel more relaxed in the slower pace of life you’ll find in rural areas. And outside the metropolis, you’ll be able to explore more nature—especially if you put down roots in one of the many national park gateway towns across the U.S., some of which even feature as the best small towns in which to live.
Be prepared for different styles of entertainment. For instance, if you own acreage in a rural location, you could have neighbors that practice shooting on their property each weekend. (Depending on the county, this may be legal if space is sufficient and certain rules are followed.)
Your Community Will Shrink
Living in a big city exposes you to diverse kinds of people, crowds, and anonymity, and, while you can make all kinds of connections in a city, the tight-knit communities you’ll find in small towns will be unlike what you’ll experience among the masses.
In small towns, family and community bonds are often stronger, which could mean you have more people looking out for you—or you might find it harder to participate in the social dynamic.
Compared with the inconspicuousness you can find in larger metropolitan areas, small-town living means fewer people, which can reinforce strong social ties. But it can also be true that fewer people means less diversity than you’re used to.
For instance, if few other residents share your religious or political beliefs (or approve of your life choices), you could potentially feel alienated, find it harder to make friends, or even face discrimination. And because this is possible anywhere (regardless of the town’s size), be sure to investigate and talk to other local residents before you make your move.
DIY Will Be a Necessity, Not Just a Hobby
Finding good employees is the No. 1 challenge faced by business owners in many small towns, as brain drain may siphon off young and capable hires who flee for greener pastures. What does this mean for you as a new small-town resident? It might mean that finding someone to do home repair or renovation probably will be much harder in a rural town. Rather than choosing a contractor from the array competing in a big city, you may have to contend with waiting lists for, say, the only good plumber in town, or hire a local handyman who, even without licensing, may have a backlog of work.
Keep in mind that this may not just be limited to home improvement. It could also include other services, such as yard maintenance and house cleaning, and babysitting or child care.
To get around this, it’s helpful to learn self-reliance, which is one of the reasons some people choose to move to a smaller town. This may mean figuring out how to change your oil or fix a toilet leak without calling in the professionals.
The Bottom Line
Living in a small town won’t be for everyone. Rural life comes with its own challenges: potentially nosy neighbors, limited entertainment, and a scarcity of well-paying jobs if you don’t already work remotely. But if you can contend with its difficulties, small-town living can also offer you some great benefits, like a lower cost of living, a better shot at home ownership, and access to a calmer, nature-filled life beyond the concrete jungle.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is considered a small town?
The Census Bureau doesn't have a set definition for small towns. It defines "urbanized areas" as areas with at least 50,000 people and "urban clusters" as areas with more than 2,500 but fewer than 50,000 people. If the area isn't an urbanized area or urban cluster, it's a rural area.
How do you make friends in a small town?
One way to make new friends in a small town is to look up events related to hobbies you enjoy. Cooking classes, book clubs, board game nights, and volunteer opportunities can all help put you in a room full of people with like-minded tastes.