Step Two — Find the Right Town to move to...

The community you live in is the social heart of your land. It will set the tone for your personal relationships. This is true no matter how far out into the sticks you might choose to live. You will still buy things, go out to dinner and get involved in activities. This will be your identified hometown, so try it on before you buy. Here's how:
  • Explore an area first with your computer. Search for towns in the target area and check the real estate listings, economic research, local businesses, and the recreational and community activities. You can get a pretty good feel for an area with an hour of time on the Internet. Try Google and type in a town name and state abbreviation. Also see the maps section.
  • Get a detailed local map with topography lines (sporting goods or hardware stores will have these). When you first come into an area get a general feel for the landscape. Determine the shape of the terrain and how the watershed flows. Get your compass out and orient yourself. How does the sun move across this area? Where will the sun go down. Where will the morning light hit?
  • Immerse yourself in the history and character of the place. Try to think like a local. Go to a school board meeting, volunteer for a day at a community service organization, go to a yard sale or local theater production. Step into the flow of the community.
  • Start by having breakfast at the most local eatery you can find, buy the local paper and walk around town. Be open and friendly to the folks you see. Ask about their yards or pets and get a feel for the community.
  • Use a Real Estate Agent as a consultant. They won't know they're doing free consulting, of course, but ask them to mark your map up with the things you need to know about the area. Ask them to locate the sewage treatment plant, the sportsman's firing range, the local airport, pig farm or other noisy or stinky potential neighbors. Where are most new houses being built? Why do people sell their houses and move away? You get the idea... Tell them you'll be back after your gotten a feel for the community. This is actually a good way to find an agent you want to work with.
  • Drive for a few miles in each direction out of town. How are people making a living? What are they building? What does the land feel like? Note your impressions on the map as you go.

Find a community with character - Many communities close to cities are in the process of becoming suburbanized. You will find strip developments of franchise shops and housing plats spilling out over the edge of town. These places are losing their character to "Generica" - that mythological location where everything is dominated by mass-market mechandising and you have no idea what state you are in. Further out are other options:

  • Older towns that once had wealth - These ex-mining, timber, railroad or oil towns were passed over by the big postwar build-up. During their more recent past they've lost population to other towns and now have handsome older buildings that are underused. These are the towns that are being discovered first, especially if they are in spectacular natural scenery or have nearby recreational activities. Some Western mining towns such as Aspen, Colorado have already become fully developed and are too expensive to be considered by most people looking for land. (If you like mountain towns like this, consider two other places I've liked. They are three and four notches lower down the development cycle - Leadville and Fairplay, CO.)
  • Natural resource base communities - These are the towns that weren't as blessed or forgotten as the communities above. Many of these towns have to deal with a kind of rural depression as the old ways of making a living become less viable. You will see this in communities with an economic base of timber, fishing, mining and certain types of farming or manufacturing. Don't assume these places are not right for you. Many such towns are reinventing themselves and are very dynamic places to live. Bring your imagination though as you will have to look beyond a initial layer of grime — think of it as a "patina".
  • Recreational or tourist centers - These towns will usually have a definable local character and a large service base to the economy. Some will have a real heart and others will just be a false front full of seasonal workers. If you find one that you like, make sure you get to know some year-round residents and how the community looks through their eyes. When you live here (even seasonally) you will soon be avoiding many of the tourist spots.
Whatever the economy, look for communities that are finding creative ways to involve people in the local action. Here's a short list of questions to check out:
  • Where is the life and vitality in this town?
  • How do the locals feel about newcomers?
  • Are there many different types of people here or is everyone pretty similar?
  • Is there a defined political character to the place or a set of unwritten community rules?
  • How many economic classes are there and how do they get along?
  • What will this place look like in ten years?
  • What would it be like to grow up here? What would a kid feel like living here?

The community that is right for you will have a specific mix of comfort and challenge that makes you feel most alive. We all need a place that is welcoming and secure so we can feel connected and safe. Yet, if the place is too perfect or too comfortable, we won't really have anything to do. Ask a recent retiree, pure leisure gets old fast. The community that is right for you will have something you need to do there.

Once you find the right community, evaluate the infrastructure that you'll need. This may include schools, libraries, medical and dental facilities, shops & stores, building suppliers, theaters and entertainment. Also check out the services your home and land with use such as oil, gas, electricity, cable, phone, Internet providers, and legal and business services. Get a copy of the local phone book and make a few calls to determine the choices you have.

If you need employment in the community, check on opportunities in your field or areas of interest. Ask those who are doing similar work how busy they are and who might need skills such as yours.

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