Moving to the sticks is all the rage right now. At least, that’s what I gather from the number of questions I’m getting about septic systems. Or, you all are just really interested in becoming rural waste management engineers. Assuming it’s the former, let’s talk about what it’s really like to live rurally.
I’m no expert, I’ve only been here for four years, and I’ve only lived in Vermont, but I’ve devoted a lot of ink to dissecting the experience of going from ultra-urban (NYC, Washington, DC, Cambridge, MA) to ultra-rural. Since it’s a pandemic and since we’re all working from home while managing our children and learning new skills (baking sourdough) and developing fascinating hobbies (again, baking) and gaining 25 lbs a day (just me?), let’s do this as a list. You’re welcome.
So You Want To Go Rural. Here are 15 Things To Know:
1) Decide if you want Rural or Remote:
These are not synonyms, people. I live rurally, but I’m not remote. I’m rural because my town has circa 400 people, I live on 66 acres of woods, there are no restaurants, movie theaters, stores, or coffee shops in my town, and I have a well and septic system.
In my opinion, I’m not remote because:
- There’s a world class hospital 45 minutes away.
- There’s a shopping “district” 40 minutes away (people, we have FOUR different grocery stores, a BJ’s, a Home Depot, a Walmart AND a Kmart, and more).
- There’s a university 35 minutes away, which brings arts and culture to our region. Professors, doctors, lawyers, artists, etc all live in my town, which is fairly unusual for such a small place. When our kids are older, we can take them to the symphony and the ballet.
- Our pediatrician is 25 minutes away and is wonderful (this is important when your kids are little because they go to the doctor approximately 6.5 times per month x number of children… ).
We have fabulous restaurants within 30 minutes of our house, which makes our monthly (pre-coronavirus) date nights possible.
- The elementary school is 10 minutes away (major rural score!!!!!) and the school district is excellent.
- One of the key differences between rural and remote is the availability of jobs. While more and more people are working from home (like my husband and me), a rural town that’s not within driving distance of employers will be more remote and likely less vibrant.
Rural isn’t better than Remote, it’s just different. Knowing what you’ll do for work, understanding the make-up of the town, and having a realistic grasp of how far you’ll need to drive to visit the dentist and buy groceries are crucial aspects of choosing a location. I strongly encourage folks to make the drive from a prospective rural property into the nearest town where you’ll do your town stuff.
2) Nature is right outside your front door:
Trees are quiet neighbors and I am thankful for the ability to walk outside and immerse myself in nature. Not needing to commute to nature was a major factor in our desire to move and it continues to astound me with its awesomeness. Especially with little kids, I wouldn’t get them (or me) outside and into the woods anywhere near as often if I had to strap everyone into carseats and drive somewhere.
The girls and I explore creeks, find newts, examine decaying tree stumps, and take daily nature walks. I’m teaching Kidwoods (age 4) to navigate her way back to the house through the deep woods and it’s incredible to witness the confidence both kids exhibit while scaling boulders and balancing on downed trees. After living surrounded by concrete for so many years, I adore our meadows, streams, pond, and forest. I wouldn’t want to raise my kids any other way.
I also love that if I have thirty minutes to myself, I can take a quick hike through our woods and feel worlds away from dishes, laundry and email. I can get lost (not literally) in the trees and experience a more holistic sense of calm than I was ever able to capture in the city. If you love being outside and if you love nature, you will love living rurally.
3) Recalibrate your idea of “nearby” and learn to love your car:
When we lived in the city, I considered anything I couldn’t walk to as too far away. People, I wouldn’t leave Brooklyn on a weekend if you paid me. Same goes for Cambridge–we never went to Boston. Why bother when we had a coffee shop at the end of our street and could see four restaurants from our bedroom window? I used to walk to the doctor, I pushed Kidwoods’ stroller to her pediatrician, we walked to church, we walked out to dinner, I walked to yoga, we walked to friends’ houses, my husband biked to work. We loved that lifestyle and it’s what I miss most about city living.
The trade-off is worth it to me and I wouldn’t go back to the city, but it was jarring at first to internalize the fact that I can’t walk anywhere. Going to a coffee shop is a 30 minute drive each way so I don’t go very often, but when I do, I enjoy it. Be aware of just how much time you’ll spend in your car if you go rural. There’s no such thing as public transportation and it takes me 10 minutes (each way) just to walk to the end of my driveway to check the mail.
I had a hard time with the car thing when we first moved here and was frustrated that it took an hour (round trip) of driving to go to the grocery store. I was mad that I had to drive an hour and a half every week for my prenatal appointments in late pregnancy with Littlewoods.
Now, I actually enjoy my time in the car. Driving a Prius is a game changer: miles per gallon matter a lot out here. Plus, I discovered the joy of podcasts and look forward to driving as my chance to listen and learn (my issue before was that radio reception isn’t great in the middle of nowhere and NPR was forever flicking in and out). It’s also true there’s no traffic, no stoplights, no congestion, no pollution, and beautiful views. I don’t mind driving an hour when I get to see picturesque barns, cows, and of course, trees. So many trees.
Coming to a place of peace with driving is more important than I realized before moving here… and we don’t even commute for our jobs!!!!! If you’re going to have a daily commute, be honest with yourself about how that’s going to impact your life. Plenty of my neighbors drive 40-50 minutes each way every Monday through Friday, and think nothing of it. The upside is that there’s zero traffic, so a 40 minute drive will almost always be a 40 minute drive (unlike in Boston where a 10 minutes drive EASILY takes 60 minutes, if you’re lucky).
Anything that’s less than an hour and a half roundtrip is considered “close” in the rural context. Be cognizant of that when you read real estate listings and speak with an agent: their idea of “close” is probably A LOT different than yours. Map it, drive it, and decide if you’re ok with that much time in the car.
4) The air quality is amazing:
I cannot believe how good the air smells. Unless you live near cows, the air is fresh, clean, and such a departure from what I was used to in the city. To be clear, cows are great, they’re just a tad stinky, but it’s a natural, organic sort of stink. We don’t even have light pollution here because there are no street lights, no traffic lights, no lights at nights. The stars spread above us like a quilt unfurled, every detail of stitching visible.
5) Are you OK forgoing city conveniences?:
This is one area where rural living and frugality come together in a beautiful way. Most “city conveniences” flat out don’t exist in the rural wilds. Here are some examples:
- There’s no such thing as take-out or delivery food or delivery grocery options. Exactly zero restaurants and zero grocery stores deliver to my home. Not a problem since we decided to stop getting take-out for money-saving reasons a few years before moving here, but I will say it’s sometimes annoying to not have that option. Like on really crappy days when you just WANT Chinese food, it’d be nice if delivery was a thing.
There’s no public transit, no Uber, no taxis, no nothing. You either have a car–or a kind neighbor with a car–or you’re going nowhere. This is why we own two cars: if one’s in the shop, we have to have a back-up. We also have two cars for safety reasons: if one of us is away on a business trip with one car and the other is at home with the kids and there’s an emergency, the at-home parent must have ready access to transportation. We always had just one car (or no car) in the city because if it was in the shop, we could walk/bike/take the subway/bus/call a taxi. Not the case here.
- Stores and services are far away so we’ve gotten used to shopping in advance. During the pandemic, we’ve been able to get away with going to the grocery store about once every six weeks. Prior to the pandemic, my husband went to the store once per week. If we forget to put something on the list? We have to wait until his next trip to town. There’s no running to the store for one item for a recipe. I will say that the neighborly proverb of borrowing a cup of sugar is alive and well and I did just text my friend to see if her husband could pick something up for us when he goes to the store tomorrow, but it’s different than being able to drive (or walk) five minutes to grab something.
- Same goes for everything else: prescriptions, household supplies, toilet paper, shampoo–if we forget to buy it, we just don’t have it. This was, again, an adjustment at first, but now I don’t even think about it. I’m so accustomed to building thorough shopping lists and have become adept at doing without/finding substitutions for stuff.
- We do get Amazon deliveries here, so that’s an option we use pretty often. I will say, though, if you’re used to two-day shipping, you’ll have to adjust to a longer wait time.
- Everything is slower. It’s a different pace of life–which I love–but it is not the fast-paced, hard-charging, efficient style of the city. Things happen when they happen. Sometimes a cow is on the road and you spend an hour trying to herd it home. Sometimes your internet goes out and you can’t do any more work that day. Sometimes it snows so hard you can’t leave your house (and then you get to bake cookies and eat them by the wood stove!!!!). Sometimes the power goes out (which means no water either) and it stays out for days (unless you buy a generator, which we most definitely did after a winter week without power or water… snow takes a long time to melt on top of a wood stove. Just saying.).
6) You will have time and space:
We’ve been able to slow our lives down and it is wonderful. Since we’re not commuting, and not shopping often, and not going elsewhere for entertainment or recreation or dining, we have the time–and the space–to do the stuff we’ve always wanted to do.
We garden extensively (perhaps too extensively… ), we’ve built hiking trails through our woods, we play in the creek, we harvest apples and make our own cider, we have a fire pit where we roast marshmallows every summer Saturday, we let our kids dig in the dirt, we make maple syrup from our maple trees, we can and preserve the vegetable we grow, we have a barn to house tools and equipment and projects. So many projects. Living rurally is a lifetime of learning and adapting.
Every season, we master new skills and solve new problems and make mistakes we didn’t even know a person could make. I love the unpredictability of rural life and the mandate to keep fresh as a lifelong learner.
7) More Land, More Problems (aka you have GOT to be handy):
If I had to cite the number one trait that’s helpful in rural life, I’d say it’s handiness. Plenty of folks live here without handy-person skills, but it’s more expensive and more frustrating. You can’t expect to call/hire someone for every job that’s needed. The more house you have, the more barn you have, the more property you have, the more fixin’ you’ll have. Even with a new(er) home and barn (like ours), something is always in need of help. Pursuant to #6, this is awesome if you embrace constant learning, not so awesome if it feels like a chore.
Here’s a great example: trees like to fall across our driveway. It’s their hobby or something. Thankfully, my husband has a chainsaw and knows how to use it. You can’t just drag an enormous tree off your driveway, you can’t drive over it, you can’t drive around it, and so, if you don’t have a chainsaw, you’re at the mercy of finding a neighbor who does and can come over to bail you out. This is one teensy, tiny example in a slew of examples we’ve encountered over the years. This is also why everything is slower and things happen when they happen. Sometimes, you have to chainsaw a tree off your driveway.
Yes, you can hire someone to mow your lawn and blow your snow and install your generator and chainsaw your trees, but it’s going to cost you and you’re going to feel like a full-time construction project manager. And the more land you have, the more difficult this will be. This is another reason why it’s important to understand the rural versus remote dynamic.
It is 100% possible to find a rural property that’s cited very close to a main road (eliminates most driveway issues), within easy access of a highway (shorter driving times), and with a small plot of land (less to maintain). Proximity to a main road, a smaller house, no outbuildings, and a small plot of land = far less stuff to maintain and fix. Of course the downside is that you’re close to a road, but the upside is that there’s not much traffic.
When considering a move to rural, be aware of your skill level–and frankly your desire–to manage maintence and forest-related issues. It’s a hobby for my husband to brush hog our fields, fell trees, split firewood, repair our well pump, till our garden, build our woodshed, and and and… but if he didn’t enjoy these things, it’d be a time-consuming pain to manage a property this large and this rural. You’ve got to love the manual labor or you’re in for a world of frustration. And this, might I point out, is all WITHOUT owning any farm animals (yet, they’re penciled in for next summer… send help).
8) Rural technology is not a given and is not created equal:
In the city, it’s a given that there’s cell reception everywhere and that every house can pay for high-speed internet. Not so out here. One of our major house-hunting criterion was high-speed internet and we were surprised at how many properties did not have it. Dial-up and satellite are not historical concepts out here.
The question here is how reliant you’ll be on the internet. If you’re going to work from home (and especially if you’ll be expected to video conference), you’ll likely need to prioritize places with high-speed access. If not, you might be ok with something less modern. We have high-speed fiber at our house, courtesy of a local internet cooperative, and it’s been fabulous for our needs.
We don’t have cell reception on our property, but we’ve learned to work around this: we have a landline phone and we’re able to use web-based services for just about everything else (i.e. Skype and FaceTime for calls, iMessage for texts, etc). It was weird at first (and sometimes still is), but once we got used to it (and got our family and friends used to it), it’s no big deal.
This also means we rock it ’90s style when we’re out and about: no cell reception and no WiFi means we can’t always been in contact with each other.
On more than one occasion, we’ve called a neighbor/friend’s landline to ask if they’ve seen our spouse lately. And we get the same calls at our house.
I will say there’s a liberating aspect to this: people are not on their phones all the time (or at all). At potlucks and parties, it’s not unusual to never see a phone. It’s a nice way to live and I like it for our kids.
But it was–again–an adjustment to get acclimated to not always being in contact with my husband and to not always have access to google maps… we have a paper atlas and let me tell you what, we have gotten seriously lost on more than one occasion.
9) You need to love being at home:
Given how far away everything is and how much work goes into maintaining a rural property, it’s really helpful if you’re a homebody. My husband and I are both homebody introverts at this stage of our lives. I would’ve been miserable out here when I was 23, but at 36, this is my jam. I love our quiet, intentional, family-centered life and it doesn’t bother me that most days we never leave our property or see anyone other than our family.
We’ve been isolating since before it was cool/mandated. We have a vibrant social life (pandemic times excused) and see local friends often, but having an abiding love and contentment of being at home is crucial.
I’m fully aware that our girls will probably hate this (and by extension us) when they’re teenagers, but I’m going to tell them it’s character-building and that they’re welcome to move to New York City after college. I figure teenagers are going to hate their parents anyway, so the parents might as well be really happy with where they live.
10) You get to be at home so much!
YAY! I really, really, really like being home with my family. It suits me, it suits my husband, it suits our kids.
11) You can have a real impact in your community:
In our small town, one person can make a difference. One person can start a weekly food shelf to help their neighbors, one person can be the reason a free summer camp happens every year, one person can organize a monthly town potluck, one person can see a problem and come up with a solution. I love this. My husband and I both volunteer quite a bit and I don’t tell you this to toot our horns, but to illuminate how engaged we’ve been able to become in our community. In the city, it always felt like we weren’t really needed. We were the 50th or the 100th person to volunteer to do something whereas out here, we might be the first (and only). It can be overwhelming to realize how few people there are to step up, but it’s also empowering to realize the deep impact you can have in a small town.
12) Making friends comes naturally in community:
I always felt like I had to work so hard to make friends in the city: everyone was busy and had tons going on and it was tough to coordinate schedules. Out here, (pre-pandemic) our friendships blossom as we serve pizzas from the town pizza oven on July 4th, as we play on the town playground with our babies, as we hike in the woods together, as we volunteer to sort book donations for the library, as we help neighbors build a house, as we drop off our trash and recycling, as we participate in the annual snowshoe-a-thon.
It feels more like being in a large, extended family–we have friends in their 80s and friends in their teens. I love the multi-generational aspect of our lives and so appreciate this for our kids. I never understood what “community” meant before moving here. Now, it’s not some meaningless descriptor, it’s a true encapsulation of the interdependence of living off the beaten path and choosing to spend time helping each other out.
Our town has a community-oriented bent to it and there are ample town activities and committees and social clubs and events and play groups. This is not the case in every rural town. Thankfully, you can learn a lot about a town based on what community programs are–or are not–offered.
13) More about DIY stuff (food this time):
You need to be able to cook and mend and clean your own house. It wouldn’t be practical or reasonable not to. Self-reliance isn’t just an ethos out here, it’s a necessity. Also, every single social event is a potluck–church has a potluck after every service, weddings are potlucks, kid’s birthday parties are potlucks, the monthly town dinner is a potluck–because everyone cooks and no one orders food (again, nowhere to order from) and to me, this is bliss. Most of the time.
I will say that sometimes, you look at the calendar and think: I’ve got to prepare a dish for four different potlucks this week and despair just a teensy bit. Although now that we’re isolated in pandemic mode, I’d give my left arm to have four potlucks to go to in a week!!! So, it’s all about perspective.
What a lot of this comes down to is that if you can’t find someone to do something for you, you’ve got to be ok with figuring out how to do it yourself. This applies to everything from schooling kids to fixing a well pump to wasp nest removal (happens all the time out here). The city option of outsourcing isn’t always available or practical. I find this liberating and enjoyable–most of the time–but I will say that a lot of that is because my husband is so proficient in handy-things and because he truly loves working with his hands. We’d be up some kinda creek without him and we would not have a paddle. I’m thinking in particular of the time a colony of wasps decided to make our upstairs bathroom their winter home. Cool.
14) You gotta know your systems:
As I noted, there’s no town sewer or water or trash pick-up out here. We have our own septic system and well, both of which we are solely and personally responsible for. If you mess up your septic system by flushing inappropriate items (or using non-septic safe toilet paper), you and you alone bear the considerable cost and frustration of having it fixed.
It’s critical to have all your systems on a schedule: you need to have your septic pumped every four years or so, you need to have your well tested for stuff like lead, and you have to take your own trash and recycling to the dump once per week during the designated time, you need to have your chimney swept, your oil tank inspected, your well pump serviced… you get the picture.
You also have to figure out how to heat your home: if you heat with oil or propane, you have to personally contract with a company to come and deliver oil and propane to you. And remember, they can’t get their giant truck down your driveway in winter, so you better have planned ahead and had it all delivered in the fall.
If you heat with wood in a wood stove, you either have to harvest the wood yourself or find someone to deliver wood to you. If you have your wood delivered, be aware, they will just dump a pile of firewood in your yard. You must then stack it in your woodshed and then cart it into your house for burning. Even with stuff that you hire out, you still do a lot of the leg work.
Living rurally is essentially the opposite of having a home owner’s association: no one tells you what to do, no one particularly cares what you do, and you are solely responsible for it all. Works for us (we’d be kicked out of an HOA within a week), but it’s a hefty responsibility and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t days I dream of living in a 600 square foot Manhattan apartment without so much as a balcony. But those days are few and far between. And if there comes a point–due to age or changed circumstances–when my husband and I no longer want to live this lifestyle, we’ll just move. Flexibility and fluidity are always part of our longterm plans and just because this lifestyle is perfect for us now doesn’t mean it’ll be perfect for us in 40 years.
15) Test drive if you can!
If you can swing it financially and logistically, I highly recommend test driving rural life! Rent an AirBnB in your desired location for a month. Live there full-time, experience it fully, and you’ll be able to make a highly informed decision. Yes, it’ll be expensive, but it’ll be a lot cheaper than buying a property and realizing a year later that it’s not for you.
Other Frugalwoods Resources
Here’s some stuff I’ve written in the past that you might find useful:
- City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown
- The Best And Worst Moments Of Our First Year On The Homestead
- A Day In The Life Of The Frugalwoods: Homestead Edition
- How We Decided Our Homestead Was The One
- The Finances Of Our City Rental And Country Homestead
- That Time We Bought A Homestead
I also have two series that might be helpful:
- The first is a detailed account of our years-long homestead hunt, which starts with this post, The Frugal Homestead Series Part 1: Why The Woods?
- The other series is my ongoing account of every month on the homestead: This Month On The Homestead. If you want to know what it’s like to live rurally year-round, that’s the series for you!
The Bottom Line: Love Where You Live, Wherever That Is
There is no perfect location and no perfect lifestyle, but for me, where we live now comes pretty darn close. I’m not out to convert you (well, maybe a little… ) but I do want to reassure any rural-curious folks that it is possible to take the plunge without much experience, without having lived rurally before, without owning so much as a shovel, and without knowing how to drive a tractor. I feel like life is too short to live somewhere you hate, so if the rural life is calling you–answer!