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You at Work

Manhattan to Mayberry: Small Towns Call to Remote Workers

How to Relocate From the Big City to a Small Town

By Bull Garlington

Should you relocate from your big city and work remotely from a small town? Here’s help finding the best place that works for you.

work remotely from a small town

Small towns in America are experiencing a new period of growth because remote workers are getting the hell out of big cities. It’s pretty hard to justify an expensive apartment in Manhattan when you’re not at the office every day. According to a study by JLL, only 37% of workers over 50 are returning to the office — and only 20% of workers under 30 are going back. More than 53% of the organizations in JLL’s study plan to make remote permanently available by 2025.

This is bad news for major metros whose tax base relies on commercial real estate. On the trailing edge of the pandemic, New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago have seen historic population losses with remote workers are moving to the suburbs, to brighter climates, to better communities, and to cheaper housing. For many workers, this means a small town — and for small towns, that means growth.

The Great Zoom Town Land Rush

The pandemic taught us we don’t need a commute. In 2020, one-fifth of Americans moved or knew someone who moved. Part of it was COVID disasters like job loss and health issues. But a lot of it, especially since then, has to do with money and quality of life. Those distant suburbs looked dorky before the pandemic when everyone was taking a Uber from their downtown office to go clubbing after work. But once everyone moved into their cramped kitchen table office, they looked around, said, hell, no, and moved out. Bloomberg called the little towns where they landed Zoom towns.

Remote Work Is Here to Stay

You may hear that companies are telling workers to come back to the office, but statistics don’t support that trend. WalletHub just released Best States for Working From Home, and the data is clear: Nearly 13% of the American workforce is remote — and that number doesn’t look like it’s diminishing.

“Work from home is going to continue to be popular and will be an essential option to retain talent in some sectors,” said Alyssa McGonagle, Ph.D., Associate Professor, and Associate Editor of Occupational Health Science, at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Offering the option to work from home gives an employer a competitive advantage in today’s labor market, which still favors job applicants.”

But How Do You Decide to Work Remotely from a Small Town?

You’re established. The barista knows your order at the coffee shop. You belong to the Union League. Your doorman pets your dog. How do you walk away from an easy stroll to your favorite bar? Look at your neighborhood: You can walk to a hardware store, a Michelin-starred Thai joint, the post office, two coffee shops, a boutique grocery store, and the library without breaking a sweat. You can see your train stop from your balcony.

How on earth are you supposed to relocate your finely-tuned metro swagger to Mayberry? How is a respected corporate lawyer with an expensive car and a bespoke worsted two-piece trial ensemble gonna fit in at the Farm & Fleet? What about your friends? What about game night? It’s crazy. It’s too much.

Why the Hell Would You Ever Move to a Small Town?

Because those friends you’re worried about are already there. All the people draining off the major metro population charts are streaming into townships and villages. No one is leaving the overpriced real estate market of San Francisco for the overpriced housing glut in L.A. They’re moving to Peoria. They’re moving to Galveston, Myrtle Beach and Sault St. Marie.

Remember Todd from the R&D cost overflow case for that big pharma company? The guy who used to brag about how he found the most exclusive six-top bar in the city? Now he’s Instagramming a dozen Ace Blade oysters at Crosby’s because Todd moved to Hanahan, S.C. And sure, your bespoke two-piece makes you look like Vera Wang in meetings, but it’s hanging up in your closet in a clear blue dry-cleaning sack because you haven’t been to the office in six months. And gaming night? Please, you play a Vagabond in Elden Ring.

Your friends are online. Because they moved away.

Small towns have less crime, better schools, cool shops — and they’ll save you money.

In the following sections are some general insights and data, using some of the bigger cities where our readers live and smaller communities not too far away. However, these insights seem to paint a Rockwellian portrait of idyllic small-town life as contrasted to the cold Hopperesque isolation of a major metropolitan city, and that’s not exactly fair.

I live in Chicago, the third biggest city in America and everyone’s favorite example of high crime and corruption, and I love it. It would be hard to get me to move away. I raised my kids here. My friends are all here, and I tend to like hanging out with them in person in favored legendary dive bars. Maybe six or seven of us meet up at that new tapas place. Sometimes we just hang out on a roof overlooking the city. It’s magnificent. I may not go to the Art Institute or the Museum of Science and Industry as much as I did 20 years ago, but I’m glad they’re there.

And that example I gave above of living in a pedestrian paradise is all me. My neighborhood is a perfect pocket of pedestrian planning perched on the far northern edge of the map. Our decision to move would have to come from a major professional change.

Or, one more winter.

Because here’s the thing. Neither myself nor [My Attorney] have to live here. We work remotely and we like it. We’ve worked from Airbnb’s all over the states. I’ve dialed in from Madrid, Paris, and even a slow boat on the Nile. We’ve proven to ourselves that location is no longer a mandate. It’s a choice.

And let me tell you, when I’m leaning into my snowblower pushing through 10 inches of powder wearing electric gloves, heated socks, an arctic-worthy ski mask, and long underwear in January, it’s colder in my driveway than it is on the moon. More than once in the last 25 years, I looked around at that alabaster hellscape while shivering uncontrollably and wondered how I’d be able to write if I lost two fingers to frostbite.

In moments like these, I often recall just how Goddam beautiful it is in Bradenton, Florida.

Reasons to Move to a Small Town to Work Remotely

Cost of living. No matter where you live, the biggest expense is housing. In this bracket, small towns beat big cities without even trying. Let’s say you have a place in downtown Chicago and you’re ready to move to a small town. You look at Danville, IL, a charming midwestern community three hours south of Chicago. It’s dead center between Peoria, Indianapolis, and your current place.

The overall cost of living is 31% lower in Danville. But more detailed differences stand out. According to NerdWallet, the cost of housing in Danville is 61% lower than in Chicago. Rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago is around $2,750. In Danville, it’s less than $800. A modest three-bedroom home in Chicago sells for more than $500,000. Danville’s selling the same size house for half that price (and it’s newer).

But you don’t need to go to a place as small as Danville.

Danville’s population is around 28,000. If you’re willing to go further, you can live in Savannah, Georgia, a historic and drop-dead gorgeous town where it never snows, and still spend nearly 30% less than you were in Chicago. And you get a city with many of the same amenities (nightlife, restaurants, upscale shopping) for almost half the cost.

Quality of life. Danville’s got Chicago beat in general cost of living. But what’s it like to live there? A couple of useful online databases can answer that question. Nerdwallet gives Danville’s cost of living data, but it also looks at other interesting numbers like the town’s walk score and the monthly bus pass cost. But Niche goes deeper.

Niche rates cities and towns on a host of data points beyond the monetary, including the ratio of renters-to-owners, the quality of the schools, and crime and safety score. Danville gets an overall rating of C+. Savannah gets a solid B and is one of the website’s top places to retire (64 out of 228). It is also a great place for young professionals (87/228); and one of the most diverse cities in America (123/228).

And that’s as good for the firm as it is for the individual lawyer.

The ease of working remotely has changed the whole market. Employers can broaden their reach since they don’t have to hire local or entice candidates with housing stipends. Employees have a broader reach into the job market for the same reasons. (Of course for lawyers bar admission can be a factor when moving out of state.)

For attorneys working remotely, this presents a unique opportunity to assess their life and ask, not just where do I want to live, but how do I want to live?

Five Cities, Five Small Towns

Here are five cities where many of our readers live and work, compared to five small towns. Some of these small towns are within an easy drive, in case you have to go in. Some of them aren’t.

Your grain of salt: I am not a social scientist.

Please accept this bold caveat before descending into the data presented: I am not a social scientist, nor am I particularly rigorous in my research. When I opened the government census database to look at coffee shops, I almost threw my laptop across the room. Research is hard, and verifying the work of others is even harder.

This article is about the process of discovering a small town that fits your lifestyle, has the infrastructure to support your work, and fulfills your vision of how you want to live. There is a lot of good, verified data out there, and I encourage you to get into it. But what ultimately makes your decision might be something as arbitrary as the beauty of a treelined street, or the proliferation of used bookstores — or some nebulous impression you can’t measure; a feeling that this little town works for you. Such whimsy may have been at play in how I ultimately chose the small towns listed below.

Criteria

My ranking criteria were drawn from classic cost-of-living data points like housing and transportation to 21st-century data points like Instagrammability and coffee shop density. I used the remarkable research by Lawnstarter to determine which U.S. cities were best for the LGBTQIA community. Walk Score delivered data for walking, biking, and public transport scores. I used the salary of the typical Chicago first-year attorney, $92,732 (Glassdoor), then rounded up to 100K for ease of calculation.

But there were elements of research and studies I felt were missing.

To me, the lure of remote work is how one may customize their environment. This goes way beyond how you decorate your desktop. It’s about the question that used to only apply to retirees: where you want to live versus where you have to live.

Most professionals have always lived in major metro areas because that’s where the work was. That’s where the office was. And it still is. But it just doesn’t matter anymore. Not entirely.

You want to move? Here are examples of finding a new place that works.

Moving from Atlanta to Savannah, GA

Atlanta is a busy, thriving city with plenty of suburbs and nearby small towns. It’s the most expensive place to live in Georgia (generally) but nowhere near as expensive as Los Angeles. (Housing is 123% higher in LA.) If you decide the noise and traffic in Atlanta are too much, you might want to look at Savannah. It’s four hours away by car, but only an hour by plane. However, the differences in lifestyle and expense are much further apart. Where Atlanta is a traffic nightmare, Savannah is a delightful drive.

Not that you need to.

Savannah is one of the southern cities not destroyed in the Civil War. Like New Orleans and Charleston, it has old, old southern charm, small city blocks and extraordinary views. Savanna is a college town, with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) looming large from multiple locations. Georgia is the new Hollywood and SCAD is feeding that industry with talented filmmakers. Savannah was the location for “The Menu,” “The Girl from Plainview,” “The Underground Railroad” and “The Peanut.”

FactorAtlantaSavannah+/-
Median home price$464,157$278,508-40%
Rent, avg. two-bedroom apt$1476$1,110-25%
BroadbandYesYesNone
One-way flight to Chicago$53–90$86—210+$25
Public schools rating from NicheBC-1 letter grade.
Nightlife rating from NicheA+ASlightly less entertaining.
Crime rating from NicheC-CSlightly safer.
Diversity rating from NicheAASame.
Walk/bus/bike score from Walkscore.com48/52/4244/0/52Fewer busses, better walking.
LGBTQ rank from Lawnstarter.com6132Quite a difference, but could be misleading. Savannah is a college town, after all.
Michelin Star Restaurants (google)1416Dinner upgrade.
Major FirmBaker DonaldsonHall Booth

From Philadelphia to Lititz, PA

I can understand why someone might want to move out of Philly. Sure, it’s frenetic and fast-paced like any big town. But it’s the broad middle lanes that get me. Many of the streets in Philadelphia have an undesignated middle lane. It’s multipurpose, which includes people just parking there, which leads to madness and howling so, sure, move. But to where? Some of the Philly suburbs have fantastic ratings (Chesterbrook, Ardmore, Penn Wynne) — but is that far enough from the big city vibe? Just 90 minutes northwest of Philadelphia is Lititz, voted America’s best small town. (I am uncertain of the impartiality of the voting process). Though it doesn’t appear in the Lawnstarter database of queer-friendly towns, it’s in a state with Erie and Pittsburgh, some of the most LGBTGAi supportive cities in the nation.

FactorPhillyLititz+/-
Median home price$330,000$245,153-26%
Rent, avg two-bedroom apt$1,901$1,500-22%
BroadbandYesYesNo change
One-way flight to Philly$39—104$39—104However, there’s a longer drive to the airport from Lititz
Public schools rating from NicheC-B+Much better.
Nightlife rating from NicheA+C+Not as good.
Crime rating from NicheC-B-Much safer.
Diversity rating from NicheA+B-Not as diverse.
Walk/bus/bike score from Walkscore.com75/67/6791/0/49Walker’s paradise. Biker’s Tuesday.
LGBTQ rank from Lawnstarter.com40Not RankedAccording to the news, Lititz is not entirely rainbow friendly.
Michelin Star Restaurants (Google)210Mostly diners.
Major FirmBallard SpahrGardner & Stevens

From Dallas to Santa Rosa, NM

Most of Texas was on par with Dallas home prices, schools and other data points. Also, Texas is huge so going out of state seemed appropriate. I looked at Loredo, Pfluegerville, and Cave Springs, Arkansas, but data points stayed the same or made a move seem like it wouldn’t accomplish much. Until I looked at New Mexico. 

New Mexico is a beautiful state. It’s geographically similar to northwest Texas, but the similarities fade out as you move away from the border. The landscape is often otherworldly, and often breathtaking. Santa Fe and Taos are tourist towns that delight but it is the smaller villages, like Santa Rosa, that are promising for our purposes.

FactorDallasSanta Rosa+/-
Median home price$230,000$106,500+ $123,500
Rent, avg two-bedroom apt$1,178$338+ $840
BroadbandYesYesNo change.
One-way flight to Chicago$70—326$142–189Regional airport, probably.
Public schools rating from NicheBB-Small change.
Nightlife rating from NicheABSlightly less entertaining.
Crime rating from NicheC-BMuch safer.
Diversity rating from NicheA+A-Slight difference.
Walk/bus/bike score from Walkscore.com46/39/4948/0/54About the same, but no public transportation.
LGBTQ rank from Lawnstarter.com122Not RankedHowever, according to gogaynewmexico.com, New Mexico is a very gay-friendly state.
Michelin Star Restaurants (Google)N/A0According to our research.
Major FirmAkin Gump Strauss Hauer & FeldGlenn Smith Valdez

Far and Away: Remote Work Can be Pretty Remote

Digital nomads are a thing and have been for a while. The gig economy is great for working abroad, especially if you are paid U.S.D. Countries with high travel charm and low cost of living rank well. Cities like Madeira, Portugal, are listed on some sites as perfect destinations. Who can argue with these numbers from Expatistan, a digital nomad site? The cost of living indicators below show how much more expensive it is to live in Chicago than in Madeira as of March 20, 2023. Also, this just in, I might be moving.

Ultimately, Finding a Small Town Means Visiting a Small Town

No amount of data can actually tell you what it’s like to live anywhere. It’s data — not life. The only real way to know if you’ll like it is to go there. Of course, remote work and Airbnb make that really easy. If you’re interested in moving to Clermont, FL, for instance, just book a house, fly in and spend a long weekend. Drive around. Get some grub. Kick the tires. 

Another consideration is impossible to determine through data: Will your friends and family want to visit? This matters to me. As I stated above, I would have a hard time leaving the network of friends I’ve put together over the last 26 years.

My family already lives 12 hours away, so the change won’t affect them too much. But they also love to come to Chicago because, well, it’s Chicago. If I move to a small town in the middle of nowhere, I can’t see them getting on a plane unless it has stunning views and a robust dining scene. If I moved to Madeira, maybe I wouldn’t see my relatives unless I flew back home to Alabama. My friends, on the other hand, would probably turn my place into their personal Bull-and-Breakfast joint because Portugal is amazing and they’d stay rent-free. Probably for weeks on end. It actually sounds … awesome.

FAQ About Relocating to Work Remotely

What are the best states for remote work?

According to WalletHub, they are, ranked:
1. Delaware
2. Utah
3. Maryland
4. Connecticut
5. New Jersey
6. District of Columbia
7. Georgia
8. Arizona
9. Washington
10. Colorado

What are the worst states for remote work?

According to WalletHub:
42. West Virginia
43. South Dakota
44. New Mexico
45. Hawaii
46. Iowa
47. Mississippi
48. Arkansas
49. Montana
50. North Dakota
51. Alaska

What are the best countries for remote work?

According to Kayak:
1. Portugal
2. Spain
3. Romania
4. Mauritius
5. Japan
6. Malta
7. Costa Rica
8. Panama
9. Czech Republic
10. Germany

Image © iStockPhoto.com.

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Categories: Remote Work, Work from Home, You At Work
Originally published April 18, 2023
Last updated July 28, 2023
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BULL Garlington Bull Garlington

Analog Attorney columnist Bull Garlington is an award-winning author, columnist and public speaker. He is the author of the books “Fat in Paris,” “The Full English,” “Death by Children” and “The Beat Cop’s Guide.” He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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