Making a Living in a Rural Environment, by JD

  If there were one factor that prevents people from living at their retreat more than any other, I would guess it to be employment. This isn’t surprising, as the very qualities that make a particular locale ideal for a retreat — rural, small population, away from major cities — also make it far less likely to find employment there. What little employment is available is often snapped up by locals who have been around far longer than any Johnny-come-lately carpetbaggers (and rightly so!)
When my family moved to our tiny town from our fairly large city, I knew from Day 1 not to expect to find a job locally. Not only would it be difficult for the reasons listed above, but frankly, I would be more of an asset to the community if I brought in employment of my own. Working for yourself can be very scary, but there are ways to mitigate the risks involved. First, of course, is figuring out what you can do. Not infrequently, you can continue to do exactly what you’re doing right now.
Much office work for example — from data entry to technical support to accounting — can be done from nearly any location. Your employer may be
willing to let you telecommute; this is particularly true if your current employer considers you a valuable asset (in other words, if you *haven’t*
been just doing the bare minimum for them over the last 10 years!)
An additional temptation to throw to your current employer: offer to become a contractor. This will save your employer a great deal in benefits and paperwork, and may make it worth the risk for him/her to try you as a telecommuter. There can also be tax benefits for you (talk to your CPA.)
It needn’t be an ultimatum or otherwise confrontational. Simply say, “I have the opportunity to move somewhere I’ve always wanted to live. But I value my relationship with (your company) and want to know if perhaps there’s something we can work out.” Again, if you’ve been a valuable employee in the past, your employer may prefer to work things out with you rather than take the risk (and expense) of hiring a new employee. On the other hand, what if you don’t have an office job, or your employer won’t compromise? Well, rural environments are always in need of basic services. If you’ve got experience as a backhoe operator, construction
worker, plumber, vet, lawyer, electrician or similar, you won’t have any difficulties developing a client base. Low-investment service companies are
best, simply because you won’t have to tie too much of your assets up in equipment or inventory.
If you’re still stuck, you might need to change careers to something that can translate to your retreat locale. Consider taking a night class or two (real estate, perhaps?) each semester at your local community college. It might take you years to earn a degree, but so what? After all, if you don’t do it, in five years you’ll simply be exactly where you are now, saying, “Gosh, I wish I had a skill that would let me earn money while living at my retreat.” (For those who want to earn a living farming: it can be done, but not easily. Farmers make very little income for the amount of work they do. If you do want to live off your homestead, I’d recommend finding a niche
market, like selling organic herbs, produce, eggs or honey. Health-conscious consumers generally have very little problem paying a premium for quality
A word of warning, however: regardless of your business, it can take up to a year to develop a local following. The first year my computer repair business was open, I had perhaps a total of three local clients. But after that year, it was as though I had passed some secret probation, and locals began regularly using my services. So either have enough money to get through a year without any business, or make sure you bring some clients with you (as in contracting with your former employer).
Incidentally, rural life tends to move more slowly than urban life. In many ways this is a good thing, but it has its drawbacks. For example, we often
find it difficult to get quotes for jobs we need done. Companies can take days or weeks to call us back when we leave messages. Take advantage of
this. If you act professionally, courteously, and are prompt and fair with your prices, you’ll soon have more business than you can handle.
Network, network, network. Local advertising of your business or service is fine, but people prefer word-of-mouth referral. This is best achieved by
finding the most upstanding local citizens you can, and offering them your services at a discount, or as a free trial. If you can get a few community
leaders to refer others to you, you’re golden. Speaking of networking, you may want to look into partnering with larger companies. Computer service technicians, for example, can get certified with certain computer companies, resulting in warranty-work referrals. If you do small engine repair, get certified with chainsaw or lawnmower companies, and so on. Once you’re an authorized repair technician (and there’s a good chance you’ll be the only one within a hundred miles), these companies will
refer their warranty work to you. Result: good income and a good opportunity to build your name within the community.
Finally, before you start (and I can’t stress this enough), set up an appointment with a CPA or tax lawyer and discuss the prospective business. It probably won’t be cheap, but it is definitely worth it. You’ll be able to discuss the pros and cons of incorporating (inc. or LLC) versus a sole proprietorship, look at the tax advantages and disadvantages, and so on. Ask your CPA/Lawyer to help you set up your accounting books (I recommend Quickbooks or Peachtree) to make tax time as painless as possible. (Don’t forget, contractors need to submit estimated taxes on a quarterly basis – failure to do so can result in penalties). I hope this helps you realize that achieving your dream of living at your retreat year-round isn’t as impossible as you might have thought. Good luck! – JD