Renting in a Rural Area

Rural communities that want to attract younger professionals, couples, and families often focus a lot of their marketing attention on jobs (if they have them) or cheap land/housing or high quality of life.

But one issue that may often be overlooked is that of affordable and good-quality rental property.  Many times, young professionals looking to relocate to a small community want to get to know that community before they invest in property–they want to rent, settle in, and see if it’s a good fit for them.

And consider this Washington Post article about fewer people moving to pursue better jobs.  If prospective new residents of your little burg are going to move there to pursue a job, they need to be able to find a place to settle once they get there.

Not all of them want to buy a house–and especially not if the job doesn’t end up working out–what are they supposed to do with that property if the position is terminated?  Add one more property to the already bloated “for sale for over a year with no takers” list?  Be stuck there with limited prospects and a mortgage to pay?

Unfortunately in many smaller communities, there just aren’t a lot of options when it comes to renting.  Currently, I am packing and planning to relocate to a small rural community in Southwest Minnesota, and finding rental housing anywhere in the county is turning into a tricky task.

There are tons of houses for sale–and for sale cheap–but two weeks before I officially start work doesn’t seem like enough of a time frame to make a big decision like buying a home–especially when I’ve still got one down here in Vermillion to deal with.

I did hook up with some people who might be persuaded to rent their farmstead to me over the course of the winter–it’s for sale, but there’s not much chance of it selling once the colder months hit.  It has been empty for a year and a half.

But then I discovered the place is managed by no less than three siblings, it’s their parents’ old place, and the whole thing is getting rather more complicated than I had hoped it would be–partly because they’d never really considered renting as an option and have never done it before.

I called two of the real estate places up there, and I got the impression with the first one that they are more interested in selling hunting land and lake houses, not doing the legwork to locate rental property suitable for a young professional and her big black dog.

The second one was much more helpful.  They’re being creative about hunting down properties for sale where the owners might be persuaded to rent–to keep the place occupied and maybe make a little income off it instead of letting the property sit and drain their resources.

I can tell you which real estate agent I’m going to call if I am eventually looking to buy in the area–the one who was willing to work with me when I was “just a renter.”

In Vermillion, the situation is pretty much the opposite, but equally problematic.  There are tons of rental properties, and all the agents and landlords are vying for a piece of the “University pie.”  Rental units (and yes, have I lived in a lot of them in this town) are often over-priced and in poor shape from years of revolving student renters.

What you’re mostly looking at when you look at a rental house is rental bedrooms–landlords are counting on income from each room where a bed can be squeezed in–each bed representing student loan or parental money flowing into the landlord’s pocket.

Now, I know quite a few landlords who aren’t like that at all, but based on my own experiences and conversations with students and faculty and professionals, that’s the basic situation.

It’s a tough one for young families when half or two-thirds of their rental’s bedrooms are housing their kids who, unless they’re flouting the child labor laws, aren’t bringing in cash to pay that rent.

Housing assistance doesn’t even help much–with a low cap on allowed rent+utility payments, lower income families have very limited options here.  According to one woman I talked to, housing assistance is capped at $627/month for her and her son.

That seems pretty decent until you realize that even in an efficient home, heat bills can top $100/month in the coldest months–$200 if the furnace is old and the windows are drafty.  And what about City bills for electric, water, and sewer? Those utilities quickly eat up that allowance until rent has to be in the $300/month range for it to work.

And a single parent who is trying to get an education, pursue work-study, and give her child a decent place to live is in a real bind–if she tries to hide going over the limit of her allowance and make up the difference with her meager paycheck, she can be kicked off assistance entirely.  So, she’s back to the old trailer.

There are plenty of gems in the rental arena here, though often they are not advertised–they fill through word of mouth.  This can present a problem for young professionals and families new to the area–they’re not connected into the grapevine, so they don’t know about all the lovely properties that go unlisted.

While our community leaders don’t necessarily like to think of Vermillion as a “rural area,” it is one–check out the Wiki.  In terms of infrastructure to provide the niceties of small town living, my new digs in Minnesota have a lot of things that Vermillion doesn’t, even though the entire county has half the population of Vermillion (when university is in session).

But quality of life here is high, and economic development is a big priority, especially with the Vermillion NOW! initiative.

I’d like to see part of that development focus on locating and providing quality, affordable rental housing to the families and professionals they’d like to attract–not just apartment buildings, but houses as well.  Not everyone likes to live in a cookie-cutter with 50 close neighbors.

More rural areas–especially those without university centers–need to consider rental property as part of their economic development/invigoration plan as well, and real estate agents should work with property owners and urge them consider renting as part of their management strategy if their property isn’t selling quickly.

After a few days of hair-pulling (my own) and concerted effort, I’ve got at least one more place to look at when I go up to Minnesota again this weekend–it’s for sale, but the owner is willing to consider renting it out at least over the winter months in order to save on utilities and to have it occupied.

I’ve got a few other people up there looking for leads as well.  I had hoped that by this weekend, I’d actually be moving a truckload of stuff to my new home, but until I have a place to put it, the big move will have to wait.

I’m really glad my new employers are understanding about the situation–after all, if you hire someone to work in a rural area with limited housing options, you can’t really expect them to start the day after they’re hired.

The local people have been helpful too–providing suggestions and phone numbers and tips.  And that help from locals and an understanding realtor makes the community more attractive–more like a place I’d maybe consider buying a property and relocating more permanently.


7 responses to this post.

  1. Rebecca, I think you’re onto a regional trend (lack of suitable housing for new workers moving to rural areas), caused in different places by different things. When I moved to Vermillion, SD almost two years ago, I wound up renting a house that was being remodeled, trusting the landlord to make the promised fixes. That turned out OK, but easily might not have. I had few options because I didn’t have the job that took me to Vermillion until after most of the rentals were already filled with students and incoming faculty.

    Up in the North Dakota oil patch, rental housing is turning into a big problem for people who are not earning oil industry wages. The small towns in the oil patch don’t have much rental property either and it’s mostly already full with working poor and fixed-income people, such as seniors. So now landlords are raising rents very high by local standards because the oil workers can afford it. But seniors and people who work at more normal wages can’t. It’s turning into an ugly situation because the towns don’t want to build a lot of new permanent housing and the infrastructure needed to support it (sewer, etc.) since oil is a boom and bust industry. Many towns remember what happen in Williston in the 1980s when the oil boom stopped and the town still had to pay debt on infrastructure expansion.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s interesting that the issue is happening in different places, in different flavors.

  2. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Pretty much the same way over here in Kimball. It’s sad that communities have no concept of the fact that professionals moving to town might just want to rent and check out “the lay of the land” before deciding to purchase a home.

    It’s even sadder when those same folks crank that “no body wants to move here.” Well…I’m wondering where they figure those professionals are going to move, if you are unwilling to rent your vacant for-sale home and there are no other rentals available?

    Thanks for letting me vent…

  3. Hello! This is Joanne, the lady who lives in the overgrown, rundown farmhouse you visited last week during your trip to Big Stone. It was so great to meet you again, and I can’t tell you how excited we are to have you working with us on local foods. So glad I found your blog too, lots of good thoughts and ideas herein. I’ve been calling around to help find housing for you in our area, and thought of something — you might want to put an ad in the local papers (Ortonville Independent, Clinton Northern Star, etc.) around here, kind of a want ad for rental housing. There might be lots of folks with homes they would be willing to rent out for a few months, especially over the winter, who realtors don’t know about. Just a thought. Good luck with your search!

  4. Posted by Tasiyagnunpa on August 18, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Renting while radical homemaking is a tough bet…and just plain renting is TOUGH. I’m SO LUCKY to have the house we have, even with it’s, er, issues, but it’s a good buy for the money.

    Funny, but I just posted a piece today called “Basements, Renting and Radical Homemaking. Oh, my!”

    Good luck in your hunt! Maybe the rent be cheap, your landlords lovely, your dog welcome, your soil free of lead and room for a garden. Take care!

  5. […] Rural communities that want to attract younger professionals, couples, and families often focus a lot of their marketing attention on jobs (if they have them) or cheap land/housing or high quality of life. But one issue that may often be overlooked is that of affordable and good-quality rental property.  Many times, young professionals looking to relocate to a small community want to get to know that community before they invest in property–they … Read More […]

  6. Posted by flyingtomato on August 18, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks, Joanne! (And I thought your farm and home were lovely–as was the food and the company!) I think I’ve got a couple leads–if I can’t nail something this weekend, I’ll probably resort to the papers.


  7. Great article Rebecca! Your story is one experienced by countless people trying to move to small towns. Sadly, rural communities lose young professionals all the time because it’s easier (and perhaps a safer bet) for newcomers to live in larger communities. It really points to the need for small towns to develop intentional strategies for introducing new residents and developing housing that meets their needs/desires. The former is easier than the later because economics of building new rental housing in small towns is tricky. But it’s none the less important.

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