Here is some guidance for urban dwellers traveling through the rural west, especially those who are considering retiring or otherwise relocating to these rural parts. If you are already a rural dweller, western or not, please add your additional advice in the comments!
1. Many of us were urban dwellers before we moved out here. Even if we weren't, you have to be pretty smart to make a living in the sticks. Don't assume we're stupid or YOUR stereotype hick. It will come back to haunt you if you stay here very long.
2. The local cafe is a good place to test out the tempo of the village or town. Be pleasant. Listen to the chatter. See what happens if you ask a question about the local ... something -- weather, festivals, etc. just to see the reaction and interaction of the customers. It tells you a lot. Also notice if the waitress calls any customers by name.
3. If you think you want to buy a place in the area, spend two weeks there in advance. Go to the local cafe, post office, etc. frequently. See if people notice you are staying longer. See if they are a little friendly.
4. Do your research on water, the local fire department (probably volunteer), library, etc. See if people volunteer or contribute to keeping things running. Consider whether you have something positive to add, not just 'straighten this out' ideas. Find out how much utilities cost, etc..
5. Start to ask around about places for sale in the area you think you want to live. In rural areas, many properties are never listed with a realtor. They quietly change hands through a title company. Some of the ones listed with realtors have major problems that all the locals know about but won't tell you unless you ask. Not their business.
6. If you think you want to buy a specific house, ask questions that most city dwellers assume away, like:
- Where do you get your drinking water? Reason: you don't want to find out at closing that water has to be bought and hauled 50 miles to a cistern, or that you have a well but you must disinfect the water yourself. Yup, it happens. UPDATE: I forgot about my friend who bought near Tucson. The house was on a 'well share' meaning he and his neighbor shared a well. He noticed that right after school was out, the neighbor's car was packed solid and they left town. About a week later, beginning of the hot and dry season, nothing came out of the taps in his house. Apparently, the well wnent dry every year between the end of May and the summer monsoon recharge. Oops. Got to ask about water!!
- What is the sewer situation? Reason: As an example of bad homework, my sister just discovered (after owning a house for 20+ years) that she doesn't have a septic tank. She has 2 cess pools. She discovered this after a law was passed that if you have less than 1 acre, you have to have a special, very expensive type of septic installed to replace any grandfathered system. She has half an acre. She can't legally sell until she has a new septic that meets the new law.
- Where is the nearest hospital? Fire Department? EMT? Grocery store? Gas station? Most people don't believe the sign at the interstate that says NO SERVICES and get mad when they must retrace the last 20 miles to get gasoline.
- How long does it take for law enforcement to respond to a 911 call? If you can't take care of a situation for the first hour or two, don't move out here.
- How's the cell service? We still don't have it here, but we do have the internet, finally. If your life revolves around your connectivity rather than your community, don't go rural.
7. Hate dirt roads? Most of your new neighbors like that dirt roads keep taxes and speeders away. If you don't want your new Land Rover to be dusty and think you can convince the locals to get the roads paved, stay where you are. We live on dirt roads for lots of reasons, none having to do with being ignorant or hicks. If you want pavement, buy on an already paved road.
8. Concerned your prospective neighbor's yard junk will bother you, but you're sure they will clean it up if you mention it, or even pay for it? Wrong. If you don't like it, don't buy there. Many rural areas have no legal support for neighborhood beautification. Some people actually keep their front yard looking like the Kettles to disuade burglars -- camoflage, nothing but junk here, keep moving. WYSIWYG
Readers: what did I miss?