“How much do you think it would cost… a large farmhouse with original hardwood floors and porch, some furniture and 5 acres of land just outside a small town in South Dakota?”
My interrogator was an ex-South-Dakotan-now-Californian seated next to me at a potluck dinner this New Year’s Eve. She was explaining to me how she had been to an estate sale a few years back in her home state .
I was thinking, “flyover state, how much could it be worth?… $100,000”. But not wanting to offend her home state I said I had no idea.
“Eight thousand dollars,” she said, obviously waiting for my jaw to drop. It did.
For the first time in my life I considered living in South Dakota. I grabbed my husband as he walked by, en route to the bathroom. “You can buy a farmhouse in South Dakota for just $8,000.”
“Let’s do it.” My husband loves to be spontaneous. And it did fit perfectly with our attempts to downshift: to spend and consume less in order to be free to earn less and to have more time to live life as we choose.
As we started planning our new life, the only one of us to have actually lived in South Dakota was quick to pipe in, “It’s not an easy life. Pipes freeze in the winter. Most people who move there from outside get depressed after a season or two, especially living outside a town.”
“Life is different there,” she continued, “If we were there right now for example, for New Year’s Eve, we wouldn’t be standing around socializing, we’d be playing cards.”
It still didn’t sound so bad. I like cards. Well, I like the idea of cards. It’s true I usually opt out of the cribbage games during family vacations, but there’s something comforting about having card players around you.
Where $28,000 buys a home on Main Street
When I got home that night, I got online to see what kind of real estate bargains I could find in the Mount Rushmore State.
Since my husband and I are both mostly working on this website right now, we really can live anywhere. We can be “Geographic Arbitrageurs“, information workers who, according to Forbes writer Rich Karlgaard, choose to live in cheaper locales while continuing to earn bigger city salaries.
“Most competent freelancers past the age of 30 with big-city connections in fields such as product design, public relations, software and sales and marketing can make $100,000 per year if they put their minds to it… $100,000 per year, or even $75,000, buys a nice life in smaller communities. Presto: Geographic Arbitrage.”
Of course, we don’t make anywhere near that right now. In fact, we’re mostly living on savings, but both of us being journalists with big-city connections, there is potential there. With an $8,000 home, we could simply extend the life of our savings, or perhaps even achieve our dream of actually making a living from faircompanies.
With a quick online search, I didn’t find anything for as low as $8,000, but I did find an adorable 3 bedroom home with hardwood floors and large lot in the middle of town- a bonus if South Dakota is truly as lonely as our new friend made it out to be- for just $28,500.
Where the kids don’t need Shakespeare
After years of living in cities like San Francisco, New York and Barcelona, where you can’t even think about owning real estate with less than half a million dollars, this sounded unreal. But then again, we’re talking about living in South Dakota, one of the few states where the population of writers has been declining.
Years ago for a book club, I read a non-fiction work about the region by a New York poet who had moved back to the land of her birth. While she called it “a land rich in grass and sky and surprises”, she wasn’t all positive. “Dakota is a painful reminder of human limits… a land of a little rain and few trees, dry summer winds and harsh winters…”
The author, Kathleen Norris, also criticized the insular thinking of South Dakotans with examples like the teacher who was told by a school administrator to stop teaching Shakespeare because “the kids don’t need it.” Norris explains this part of Dakotan character as “to some extent, wariness about change is a kind of prairie wisdom”.
My New Year’s Eve friend told me that her family had warned her against marrying a Californian saying that it would change her. I asked her if it did and she said “yes, but for the better”. She became an environmental vegetarian- until getting pregnant- and she now tries to eat a 100-mile-diet (not easy from her high altitude town in the Sierras, but she’s part of a CSA) and to live as sustainably as possible.
With all this background, I assumed that the “green” revolution would be too California for the Dakotas. Then I started reading a bit more about the community where I’d located my $28,000 dollar home.
The website for this town in the southeastern corner of the state claims Howard is “a center in South Dakota for renewable energy, organic beef production, and rural community development. The homepage is dominated by a picture of wind turbines and I read that Howard was the first municipality in the state to own and operate wind turbines.
I also found out that it’s home to the processing plant for the country’s largest organic beef company. Dakota Beef’s company president “expects that even more ranchers will recognize the opportunity to join Dakota Beef and will convert their land to organic production.” The company already employs 60 of the towns 1000 residents.
Perhaps Howard is still more of producer of “green” products, than consumer, but when the technology is in your backyard it’s tough to ignore that times are changing. Resident Randy Parry, head of the town’s revitalization effort, told the Wall Street Journal the presence of the 2 wind turbines in town has a powerful effect on him. “To be honest, I still get goose bumps every time I drive by.”
Having spent the past two decades in big cities, I’m not sure what a move to a small town would feel like. Maybe I wouldn’t have the distractions of big city life, but I’d like to think I would take that as an opportunity to slow down my life even further.
I would have a backyard to plant a vegetable garden (bigger than my current patch of spinach). And I’d have time to make my own bread without yeast, yogurt without containers, to re-fashion old clothes and to create furniture from recycled trash.
And perhaps I could start to make a bit of income on all this. Howard has just started a summer market and they’re looking for residents who want to sell “produce from that HUGE garden of yours”, as well as “baked goods, handicrafts and everything in between”.