For Young Professionals, Rural Towns Are Doing What Cities Can’t

Low housing prices, good school systems, and friendly neighbors make small-town living an appealing option for young people—but is it for everybody?

Despite the rapid growth of urban areas, there is a trend of young people moving the other direction.

Photo by Witold Skrypczak/Getty Images

Debbie Tuckfield has lived in rural Taylor, Arizona, for more than 40 years, and her family has called northern Arizona home for over a century. Like many, she has deep roots there.

But more and more, newcomers are migrating there from nearby Phoenix in search of affordable housing, a slower pace of life, and a family-oriented community. Jeff and Elizabeth Brinton came to neighboring Snowflake three years ago through family ties—and the opportunity to purchase a home on Jeff’s teacher’s salary. Barb Hansen relocated there in search of a life rich in family and community, and also for less costly housing after a corporate downsizing at her Phoenix job left her unemployed in 2009.

Despite the rapid growth of urban areas, there is a trend of young people moving the other direction. According to rural sociologist Ben Winchester in a 2012 study by the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, 30- to 49-year-olds move to rural areas in search of a safer, more secure, and simpler life. They also come for affordable housing, outdoor recreation, and better schools. In fact, U.S. rural populations increased by 6 million between 1970 and 2010.

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It’s a small but steady movement, bringing young, educated professionals to rural areas. And for those who move, it can provide an opportunity to buy a home—and a pathway to achieving the American Dream. But those considering rural life should move with open eyes and tempered expectations.

Snowflake and Taylor, twin towns about 175 miles northeast of Phoenix, epitomize small-town America. The two towns feature quaint downtowns, friendly neighbors, a top-rated school district, clean air, and a much slower pace of life for their 10,000 residents.

Families wishing to escape soaring home prices in other parts of the country will find that Snowflake and Taylor have great home prices. The towns’ median monthly housing costs are more than 20 percent lower than in Phoenix, according to the U.S. Census. Real estate site Zillow shows that the median home value is $157,870 in Snowflake and $164,047 in Taylor, compared to Phoenix’s middle-class Camelback East neighborhood, where the median value is $319,836.

“Homes in Snowflake and Taylor are notable for their affordability; you can find a really nice house there with a bit of land for less than $200,000,” says Felice Katz-Bobo, a realtor in the area.

The Brintons were pleased to learn they could finally afford a home in Snowflake, even if they found it through a family connection: Elizabeth’s grandmother. Before moving, the Brintons lived in an apartment in the Phoenix metro area with two small children. But lifelong city resident Jeff had always wanted to live in a small town. In 2015, the family drove to Snowflake and casually looked at homes. “I called the school district … and they said, ‘Come on down,’” he says. Then, Elizabeth’s grandmother offered to sell them her house. “Within an hour we had a job and a house!” Jeff says.

Since then, the Brintons have had two more children, and Elizabeth turned a lifelong avocation into a job: In 2016, she opened a dance studio, Dance Amour, where she’s one of the teachers. With so many youths in town, the studio has proven popular.

Most folks here tend to be social conservatives, no matter their political leanings.

The two towns are also a great place for home-based businesses, thanks to great internet service. Small businesses range from caramel treats and custom small manufacturing to a lavender farm.

Although they love the slower pace—Jeff jokes that he now experiences anxiety when driving down to Phoenix—there are some drawbacks. One thing the couple missed after moving from the U.S.’s fifth largest city is convenience. “We found that the town closes at night,” which necessitated doing a bit of planning to make sure they don’t run short of milk at 11 p.m., Jeff says.

Still, it’s a small price to pay for living in Snowflake. “We have Thursday night events in the park, school performances, parades, and rodeos,” Jeff says. “You’re not living beside people who you never talk to—you have neighbors.”

But there are certainly culture clashes between new arrivals and long-time residents. Tuckfield says she’s fielded many angry phone calls from new homeowners about barking dogs, chickens, or horses next door during her 17 years formerly on the Taylor Town Council, including two years as mayor. She recounts presiding over a council meeting where “one couple threw a fit because their neighbor’s kids were in 4H and were raising cows and pigs,” she says. “But, the whole council was agog and replied, ‘Are you kidding me?’” The land was zoned agricultural, and the town wasn’t about to rezone it.

“I call it ‘buyer beware,’” Tuckfield says. “Do your due diligence. If you see stables or a barn next door to a home you want to purchase, go knock on the door and ask what they’re keeping there.” Tuckfield also advises to check the neighborhood zoning in advance.

Another desirable aspect of rural life: a tight-knit community where everybody lends a hand.

Shared religious beliefs among newcomers and longtime residents can help smooth some cultural differences. Many of the Brintons’ neighbors, for example, share their religious beliefs and a strong family ethos. The influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which the Brintons are members, is felt throughout the community. Snowflake has eight congregations of 300 or more members while Taylor has nine. LDS’ Snowflake Temple, the second built in Arizona, overlooks the two towns on a hilltop perch.

Most folks here tend to be social conservatives, no matter their political leanings.

That conservative outlook extends to public life. Tank tops and spaghetti straps are frowned upon for women’s attire, and the public school district still has a strict dress code.

Parents appreciate Snowflake’s school system, says Snowflake Unified School District Superintendent Hollis Merrill. “We have people calling us from all over the nation saying that they’re moving here because our schools are rated A,” Merrill says.

Another desirable aspect of rural life: a tight-knit community where everybody lends a hand. Tuckfield knows that through experience: When a grandchild tragically passed away, the family didn’t deal with the loss alone. “We were surrounded by people wanting to help,” she says. Many brought food, and a local craftsman made a casket with wood donated by a local firm; the lining was sewn by another neighbor.

People who understand the dynamics of small-town life, and who aren’t keen to bring in a Starbucks on every corner, are most likely to thrive here. Hansen says that driving to the post office to get her mail pales in comparison to the many benefits that she sees living in Snowflake. “We have four seasons here,” Hansen says. “It’s like a little oasis.”

And she won’t be moving any time soon. “My son moved here and married a local girl,” she says. “My daughter-in-law doesn’t want to live anywhere else.”