How to Find the Right-Sized Town for You

Reader Contribution by Christopher James Marshall
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Primarily, the goal is to find a community that you feel a sense of belonging to and in an area that you love and can successfully build. Often a person grows up in a region and is acclimatized to it and would not be comfortable elsewhere. Others may have traveled and found a new region that they prefer. Still others can afford two homes, and for them, living seasonally is what they love.

Mapping Your Region

People in groups are also known as the community or population. Population is a number, but people are individuals with needs for a sense of belonging, privacy, access to resources, a healthy environment, security, and a gainful employment — regardless of the community size. The problem is that quality of life and population don’t scale in a linear way. Generally speaking the quality of life varies with the population size.

Dimensions of Population





Extended family

Sense of belonging, no privacy


Large company building

Everyone knows about you, no privacy


Urban high school campus

Everyone has seen you, no privacy


Small isolated town

Limited local resources, limited privacy


Suburban city

Resource centers, isolation, crime, long commute


Metropolitan city

Many resource centers, isolation, crime, pollution

Now let’s ‘put a tack on the map’ and locate a town where you would love to build your home. Obtain a current state highway map. If the map doesn’t contain population listings for each city then you’ll need to look it up from other sources like Wikipedia. Attach the map with tape or spray glue to a foam core board, corkboard, or cardboard so that it will hold tacks placed on the map. Using a set of different color tacks, place a color-coded tack on each city based on its population and proximity to urban centers.

Tack Color Map Legend

Tack Color


Distance to Nearest ‘Red’ Tack

City Type


50,000 to 250,000+



15,000 to 50,000

closer than 20 miles



15,000 to 50,000

farther than 20 miles

small city


3,000 to 15,000

small town

As you fill the map with color-coded tacks you’ll begin to notice the shape of the geographic and demographic landscape.

Look for These Four Patterns

1. When a red urban tack is surrounded by many yellow suburban tacks it indicates the ‘greater metropolitan’ area, where there is really no separation between the core city and the suburbs other than long commute times.

Greater Metropolitan Area

2. A string of green small town tacks along the interstate highways may indicate that there is no difference from one small town to the next, and the feel might be more like suburbia than rural.

String of Small Towns along the Highway

3. When you see scattered green small town tacks, the next thing to determine if it’s the geography or other factors that isolate these towns.

Scattered Small Towns

4. There might be a red urban tack surrounded by a few green small town tacks. This is different than a greater metropolitan area with suburbs because the commute time from the small town to the single metro city is long enough that you’d likely work and live in the small city and take occasional visits to the bigger city for other resources.

Single Metropolitan Area with Surrounding Small Towns

Road-Trip Research

The first place to drive when you arrive is Main Street or downtown and stop at the local Chamber of Commerce where you can get a local map, phone book, newspapers, magazines, list of events.

Read articles on local businesses, issues and residents. Ads indicate what people are typically buying in that region, and conversely what is not available.

14 Things to Find Out About a Town

Use Wikipedia, history books, maps, government websites, etc. to gather and evaluate information that may influence your decision about choosing a particular town:

1. Maps. Shaded relief and topographic maps, county maps, national forest maps, city maps, GoogleEarth satellite maps, and National Geographic Topo maps. Study these maps and learn where are the public/private domains, access roads, lakes, mountains, rivers, forests, farms, ranches, railroads, airports, industrial zones, residential zones, and how steep is the terrain.

2. Mileage and travel time between key towns. Set a cutoff distance/time for commuting to a job and/or to obtain services from businesses.

3. Unemployment rate from the state employment department. Find a source(s) of income for you and your family that is compatible with the region.

4. Main industries and/or polluters. Government, forestry, ranching, farming, mining, tourism, education (college town), fishing, hi-tech, gambling, etc.

5. Internet groups like MeetUp and Yahoo. An indication of the size of a town: no internet groups means small town, lots of groups means large town

6. Seasonal weather statistics. Freezing temps, summer temps and humidity, number of sunny days. This will influence the energy aspects of the home you build.

7. Disaster history. Earthquakes, forest fires, storms, floods, landslides, volcano eruptions, pollution. This will influence the building structure you build or possibly your choice to build in the area at all.

8. Median citizen age. This will reveal if the population consists mostly of retired folks or young families.

9. Crime statistics. Avoid drug addict invested towns with high rates of home invasion, theft and robbery.

10. County and city zoning codes. Study this and determine if you’ll be allowed to build what you want.

11. Land prices and availability listings. Is it possible to afford the land you want and/or is it available?

12. Tax rates, state resources. Know what you’re getting into, as these two aspects of a town are very slow to change.

13. Schools, colleges, food stores, hospitals, airports. Find what’s important to your needs and determine if the quality of the facility is sufficient or if you can live with it.

14. Jails, reservations, churches. Determine if you are comfortable with these neighbors.

Christopher James Marshall is the author of the do-it-yourself small house book Hut-Topiaand is a modern-day off-grid mountain man. After weathering recessions and lay-offs every decade since the 70s through the “Great Recession,” he became semi-retired by making plans to live sustainably and then built his 500-square-foot off-grid home.Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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