Can a rural town have a cutthroat rental market?

Rural America is low-key, right? Not always. Renting a good house can be just as competitive as in the city. Find out why the grass isn’t always greener.

Low supply, high demand

Urban renters know the game. When you live in a popular city, you need tog et lucky to find housing. You hustle. You scrape. It’s a hunt—and a race—to snap up the best, most affordable rents. To jump the line on everyone.

Urban renters put down deposits before setting foot into an apartment. Sight-unseen. It’s all part of the carnival that is New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles living.

Urban renters put down deposits before setting foot in an apartment. Sight-unseen.

I’ve lived in all three of the above cutthroat rental markets. The idea of moving to a small town brought a sigh of relief. “Finally, housing would be easier.” In a small town, you’ll buy a home but maybe rent first as you settle in.

Then I heard: the rental market in this small town is super-competitive.

To jump the line

I’ve rented for most of my life. Primarily, it was by choice. I lived in expensive cities. I never felt called to settle down and spend a million dollars in any of those places. So I rented. It was fine.

As mentioned above, a common practice is to rent an apartment sight unseen. Personally, I never had to do this. It was nice not to have to. My luck put me in the right place on the right day. I could always walk through an apartment and decide.

I didn’t have to gamble and wasn’t left feeling desperate. Which put me in charge.

I was breaking my rule … for a modest town of 20,000!

Now, I was breaking my rule. Not for a competitive city of 8 million. But for a modest town of 20,000!

Broken down rural shack

Sight unseen, in a rural market?

I couldn’t believe it. A small town with a low vacancy rate? How could there be so much demand?

The answers I heard were logical:

  1. There was a demand I didn’t recognize
  2. There was a lack of supply I didn’t see

The following tale I relate is specific to this town. But one thing I learned. Wherever you go, you’ve arrived at the center of someone’s universe. There were enough someones in this town to make for competition. I was told, “snap up a rental house before getting here.” In other words, rent one sight-unseen.

It could be the same where you end up. So, take a listen, urban dweller. Hopefully, you’ll do better.

The demand

Wherever you move to in rural America, there will be some economic base. It’s a good thing. You want there to be a robust local economy. Where I moved, I learned there were three major employers:

  • Air National Guard
  • Rural hospital
  • State technical college

These employers draw professionals, mainly short-term workers. Those looking to rent a nice home. I was vying against people like myself. Just like in the city! How was there not enough supply?

The supply

Half of this country rents. As well, half of the homes owned in the United States are rented out, as opposed to being lived-in by owner-occupants. Even with so many homes available to be rented, markets are tight in many cities.

Where I moved, matters were worse. New home construction in this town was only half the national average over the last decade. This region lacked the buying power to build. As people moved in from cities to retire or relocate, they wanted to rent. The supply was limited. For ex-urbanites, it was deja vu.

Worst rental experience ever

What happens when demand outstrips supply? You get the dark side of free enterprise! And so it went. After renting in the toughest markets in the country, I had the worst rental experience in a small town.

You probably won’t encounter all the bad breaks I did. It might help to know what they were.

Here’s how I had the worst 12-month rental period in the last 25 years.

Names are withheld. This is a small town. I have no beef with anyone. This story does bear telling if to help someone else.

Here’s how I had the worst 12-month rental period in the last 25 years.

rural house

Disbelieving my eyes

“Are those single-pane windows?

I was still in Southern California. I asked our small-town contact about the online photos of a particular rental house. In every photo of the house, they look like single pane windows. I’d dealt with single-pane windows in New York. They don’t keep out the cold very well. This town we were moving to got cold.

“No, they’re storm windows.”

It didn’t rack. But the house looked good otherwise. It was in our pic range. It turned out, they were single-pane windows. Not a big issue in itself. But the house had issues relating to heat that would plague our stay. Issues the owners had missed during a year of renovations. Whenever it got 20 degrees or lower outside, I’d grab a sweater and a wool hat inside.

Our heating bill was over $150/month for a house that was 1,200 square feet.

I had never rented sight-unseen. Here was why, bad heat in a bitter winter.

Ignoring my ears

The house we rented was a work-in-progress. At least, the management company was top-notch.

Or more specifically, it’s what we were told by someone local. It was a specific recommendation. I latched not it as something certain in a new place. Then, I met the property manager myself. Uh, oh.

Big-city management companies are in business to make money. It’s all they care about. They keep conversations short. They make the process simple. It’s smart business. They get you in, get signed. Collect the monthly checks.

It wasn’t this property manager’s philosophy. Holding court was his primary interest, not money. He talked my ear off during our first meeting. Which was fine. But then, he started to get gossipy.

Holding court was this manager’s primary interests, not money.

This property manager went on about the owners of the house we were renting. He let us know they were unstable. Unprofessional. Borderline dangerous. They harassed their tenants. They harassed their managing agent, he informed me (him). They were perfectionists from California. (Sorry, Californians.) He summed up, that they were crazy.

I had already rented the house sight-unsee. I might have stopped listening. Instead, I tried to make nice. Let him talk. I held onto the glowing recommendation I had heard. It had to get better, right? Wrong. He was a dramatic guy. Made my life pretty miserable for the next 12 months. I could’ve seen (and heard) it coming.

Discovering the law

In renting my first rural house, I got a crash course in small-town capitalism. Everyone could be on their worst behavior. They had the supply. There was a lot of demand. Small town owners can be kings. Our county is among the poorest in the state. A big fish looks mighty in our small pond.

I got a crash course in small town capitalism.

The managing agent had refused to give me a standard one-year lease. It was for my flexibility, he said. We were given a six-month lease. Soon, the lease was up. The owners were predictably crazy, as the agent told me. The agent was also crazy, as he showed me in our first meeting.

All to say, I had managed to get on their bad sides. I couldn’t be evicted over their feelings, could I? They needed. good reason, didn’t they?

No, they didn’t.

In a surprise move for a liberal state, there was no-cause eviction.

In a surprise move for a liberal state, there was no-cause eviction. Landlords call it the meth exception. They’re afraid of getting in a tenant they can’t remove. Only, it’s used the way you would imagine as well, indiscriminately. (Right now, a 69-year-old woman is getting thrown to of her small-town apartment for no cause.)

Paying local homage

I’d already been threatened with eviction once by the crazy owners. (A first time for me in 25 years.) We faced a tight rental market, in February, if our lease wasn’t renewed. The law was completely on their side.

Using my city ambition to get what I needed, I kissed all the rings of the power players in the situation, one by one. We got to stay. These folks had managed to make a simple business transaction into the most personal situation in human history. It was their town. Their rules. When I finally played like a tenant serf, they suddenly felt all was right and good.

You can’t afford to act like a paying customer. You let them be right.

In a city, you write a formal letter to people like this. Ask for changes. Defend your legal rights. In a small town? You can’t afford to act like a paying customer. You let them be right. You keep your feel-good reputation intact. To reference the end of a famous Hollywood movie isn’t quite Chinatown, but it’s “rural town.”

Iced over window inside rural house

Short-lived renters

The day we closed on our house, our landlady was burning debris behind our rental. A column of smoke blew straight toward the house. Right between the gaps, in through our single-pane windows.

You’ve never seen such worry-free homebuyers.

Renting is asking for a boss who is not qualified.

If you’re coming from a city, you have skills. Experience. You probably don’t want a small-town boss. Renting is asking for a boss who is not qualified. Especially renting from property management. Look for a rent-by-owner. Or, rent in a condo community. It doesn’t have to be a house.

You encounter enough newness just moving to a small town. You don’t need to deal with a cutthroat rental market. Be renters, so you can see (if) where you want to buy. Be short-lived renters.

YMMV

Your mileage may vary. What I think translates between towns is this. Watch the personalities. People you do business with are sizing you up. They’ll see what they can get away with. You’re not rural. Maybe you don’t want to be. But definitely not when you get there. You’ll have a tougher time.

The people you do business with are sizing you up.

We faced eviction in the dead of winter with no place else to go. You may have more buying power where you move. Hope you do. The urban person’s goal is to have rural life be simpler. If it’s not, it’s not worth the move. Rural renting may be worse than in a city but home buying is easier, generally.

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If you’re an urban reader, do you still rent? Does owning a home make rural life appealing?

This blog post first appeared at Recently Rural.

Eugene Havens

Eugene is a writer working on books and websites. Check out Eugene's novel here.

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