Brendan McCall and his wife, Lili Kostova, searched for a year and a half for a house to buy. McCall, thirty-two, is executive chef and partner at Mani Osteria and Isalita restaurants, both located in downtown Ann Arbor. He’d hoped to limit his drive time, but in Ann Arbor “we couldn’t find anything that wasn’t overpriced,” he says. Then, as they were walking their dog in Hudson Mills Metropark in Dexter Township, they saw a nearby house that attracted them. They bought the 2,254-square-foot home for $180,000 in December 2013. That worked out to about $80 a square foot–just half the typical price in the Ann Arbor School District.
McCall appreciates their home’s value: “You get more bang for your buck by moving to the outside areas,” he says. Kostova, thirty, appreciates the proximity to the Metropark; canoeing opportunities are within a five- to ten-minute drive. And it offers both the chance to pursue their passion: growing a portion of their own food. They’ve planted seventeen fruit trees, have a 600-square-foot garden, and are looking to buy chickens. Though McCall’s commute can be long, ranging from twenty-five minutes to over an hour in the snow, the tradeoff is the chance to unwind in solitude.
“I love being able to go home and see the stars when I get out of the car,” he says. “You just feel like you’re in your own world.” Kostova, a native of Bulgaria who grew up in cramped living quarters, appreciates the wide-open space. And she doesn’t feel like a foreigner in nearby Dexter, which she says is a welcoming small town. There are servers “who know what we like to eat when we go to the pub. This reminds me of my town.”
The conventional wisdom among urban planners is that the twentieth-century dream of country living is obsolete. The movement of city folk to more spacious and affordable suburbs and country homes is disparaged as “urban sprawl.” The twenty-first century ideal is said to be a “new urbanism,” the revitalization of core cities by young “millennials” who, Fortune editor Leigh Gallagher writes in her 2014 book The End of the Suburbs, overwhelmingly want to live “in urban areas and don’t want to own a car.”
That’s an article of faith in Ann Arbor. The city’s downtown attracts young people “because it is pedestrian friendly and filled with vibrant employment, retail, entertainment, and dining offerings,” says mayor Christopher Taylor. Sandi Smith, a former city councilmember and owner of Trillium Real Estate, points out that many millennials “don’t consider themselves drivers by nature, and they’re looking for places with good transportation options. If they’re not big drivers, they wouldn’t want to live in the country.”
But while Ann Arbor drives the real estate market in Washtenaw County, many young households can’t get past the financial hurdle. One-bedroom apartments in the city’s new high-rises rent for $1,600 or more a month; two-bedroom downtown condos start around $350,000. These prices are more accessible to deep-pocketed boomers than those at the beginning of their careers. (Governor Rick Snyder is a case in point. He and his wife just purchased a Main St. condo for $1.5 million and plan on adding a $500,000 rooftop addition.)
Bob Pierce, executive director of the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce, notes that small towns and country living also provide qualities that young families appreciate: they are safe, are cost-effective, and have outdoor amenities. Teresa Miller, a Realtor at Howard Hanna’s Chelsea office, adds that emigrating Ann Arborites don’t have to buy an old house on a country road to get those benefits: subdivisions have newer homes that are often better priced, she says.
While living in the country requires more self-sufficiency, it also offers more room for gardens and chickens. U-M planning prof Larissa Larsen points to the emerging local food scene as one factor drawing some urbanites to the country. But as Ann Arbor’s housing prices continue to rise, Larsen says, it’s lower costs that are the big draw in outlying areas.
Lima Township supervisor Craig Maier says property goes for roughly $4,350 an acre there, while it’s not uncommon to pay $80,000 to $120,000 for a lot nearer to Ann Arbor. He’s seeing more people in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties buying homes in Lima lately or buying land and building an affordable modular home. And it’s not just selling prices that are lower outside Ann Arbor. Pia Crum, a Reinhart Realtor who sells many houses in Saline and nearby townships, says tax rates can be as much as 30 percent lower in the townships.
Kostova and McCall joined a small but enthusiastic group of young professionals who are happily shunning the city for rural life in Washtenaw County. Though the trend may not yet alarm Ann Arbor officials, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments forecasts an increase over the next twenty-five years in the number of residents between eighteen and thirty-four years old in rural Washtenaw. In Lima Township, for example, SEMCOG foresees a 43 percent increase; in Dexter Township, 37 percent; in Sylvan Township, 96 percent; and in Saline Township, 67 percent. SEMCOG sees a 25 percent decrease for this age group over the same period for Ann Arbor.
Price was a motivator for Jennifer Eberbach, a thirty-four-year-old freelance writer. She initially lived in downtown Ann Arbor, wanting to “be in the middle of everything.” But in April 2013, she and her boyfriend, a chef, paid $127,500 for a 1,400-square-foot home that incorporates an 1856 one-room schoolhouse on 6.5 acres in Lyndon Township. She pays $1,600 in taxes, barely half what she’d pay for a house of similar value in Ann Arbor. She keeps a small flock of chickens that provide fresh eggs and looks forward to planting a garden. She also relishes the chance to live near the Waterloo and Pinckney state recreation areas, the largest patch of state parkland in the Lower Peninsula.
Lima and Lyndon townships are both seeing “an influx of young folks moving into rural areas from Ann Arbor,” says John Enos, who handles their planning as a principal in the regional firm Carlisle/Wortman Associates. He saw this play out on an anecdotal basis this past summer, when roughly 500 people, many of them young, well-educated, and articulate, showed up at a public hearing to protest a sand and gravel mine proposed for Lyndon Township.
Pia Crum says roughly 20 percent of her clients in the past year are young, childless, professional couples who want acreage. She says she likely attracts this type of client because she is one of only twelve “green certified” Realtors in Ann Arbor. “They all want to be able to live a more green lifestyle” and garden and grow organic produce themselves. Some want to be homesteaders yet still be professionals and work in well-paying jobs in Ann Arbor or metro Detroit.
Crum’s clients Dana and Barry Burnette fit this profile. The couple, both in their mid-twenties, bought three llamas in the month after purchasing their 2,300-square-foot home on ten acres in Lodi Township last June. Dana grew up in suburban Rockville, Maryland, and after studying environmental science and sustainability in college, knew she wanted a different lifestyle for her own family. She works in Ann Arbor’s Department of Parks and Recreation while her husband, a Saline native and also a U-M graduate, is employed by the Saline Area Schools. They’re expecting their first child in May and looked for a place to “raise our kids where they wouldn’t be confined to a sidewalk,” Dana says. They have seven chickens and aspire to eventually own horses.
Rural life brings unfamiliar responsibilities, like having to install a water filter to remove iron from their well water. Still, Dana is enjoying country life. “There are so many different projects we can work on to make this place our own,” she says. Her future plans include restoring the land as a prairie, removing invasive weeds, and planting more native species.
Another lure is strong schools. McCall and Kostova have five-month-old twins, and he says the disparity between Ann Arbor’s schools and those in surrounding areas is disappearing.
Dexter’s school population has exploded, from 2,993 in 1999 to 3,550 this year. “A lot of people move here” because of the strong schools,” says Dexter Community Schools superintendent Chris Timmis. “It’s a nice place to raise kids.”
Saline’s mayor, Brian Marl, says the Saline Area Schools are ranked as one of the most outstanding public school systems in Michigan. Rachel Krugh moved with her husband and three children to Lyndon Township from Seattle in December 2010, and says that when her eldest started school, it “was stunning” how much further ahead his new classmates in Chelsea were. “We can’t say enough positive things about the schools.”
Chelsea High School principal Michael Kapolka says a testament to the schools’ success is that 70 percent of their staff choose to live in the district. Kapolka, who has three children, is among them: when he moved from Warren, he bought a house in Dexter Township in the Chelsea district.
Marcus Kaemming, principal of North Creek Elementary in Chelsea, says that, after falling during the recession, enrollment is up by twenty-eight students this year. He has met several families who are moving to the outskirts of town. He says the appeal is the high expectation for performance in academics, combined with small-town character. “There’s a little bit of Mayberry, but not in a negative way,” he says. “If your kids are here, everyone is watching out for them and caring for them.”
Bridget Favre, who at thirty-nine is more Gen X than millennial, says the schools and that tight-knit atmosphere drew her family to Chelsea. Her husband’s job at the University of Michigan brought them to the area from Colorado Springs, and they initially moved with their three children to a rented house in Ann Arbor. But she says the neighborhood was transient and not particularly welcoming, so in 2011 they paid $217,000 for a 2,100-square-foot home on 1.5 acres in Chelsea. It gave her husband the acreage he craved yet connects them with neighbors who share barbecues, bonfires, and holiday gatherings. “We’ve created a family away from our immediate families,” Favre says.
Transportation may prove to be a sticking point for rural-bound young people. Though lower gas prices ease the cost of commuting, it still takes its toll in time, as Brendan McCall found.
The commuter life didn’t work for Megan Phillips Goldenberg, twenty-nine. She and her husband bought a well-priced fixer-upper on four acres in Saline Township last August. Goldenberg, who is pregnant with her first child, grew up on a nearby farm; her husband, who was in the Navy, craved lots of space, but since he’s going back to school, they wanted to be near universities and her job at the University of Michigan.
She enjoys owning livestock and growing her own food–but she ended up having to quit her U-M job, since it would often take her an hour or more to make the fourteen-mile drive to campus. “The traffic and congestion in Ann Arbor and across Saline was too much,” she says. She’s now an independent food systems consultant and works out of her home office.
Freelancers like Goldenberg and Jennifer Eberbach may have found the best of both worlds: the rural life without the daily traffic fight, giving them more time to savor their new digs. “There’s something kind of magical about how generally quiet it is out here,” Eberbach says. “Sometimes the frogs are the loudest thing you hear. It’s been a really good choice.”