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Millennials, Migrate to Mountain Mansions

6 min

[In less than 30 days my wife and I are packing up our few belongings and driving up into Colorado, Utah, and/or Montana. We haven’t decided where yet, but we’re going to be renting somewhere, exploring places to live longer-term. Below is my vague dream vision motivating this migration adventure. If you’re interested in these ideas and want to chat via email or you live in these areas and want to have a drink, you should message me.]

This pandemic lockdown is making me think extra hard about where, with whom, and how I want to live.

I suspect I’m not the only one.

It just so happens that, when the lockdown struck, I was (and still am) living with my wife and two friends in a spacious home that my friends own in New Mexico. I suspect that the discomfort and inconvenience we are experiencing is drastically less than average, because we're locked up with other smart and interesting people.

It also just so happens that, a year ago, I jumped ship from a traditional career in a brick-and-mortar institution for an unorthodox career based on the internet. This is the other reason why the pandemic lockdown has been relatively pleasant and productive for me.

My wife and I find ourselves thinking more creatively than ever about how, exactly, we’ll choose to settle down. I’m 33, my wife is 29. We don’t have kids yet but we really want to have one soon. In my post-academic transition, we’re still a bit below median income for a married couple, but growth looks good and now my upside is unlimited so I’m pretty confident.

The inaccessibility of traditional home ownership for many Millennials is another factor that will intersect with the pandemic-induced appetite for lifestyle innovation.

There are many ways you could imagine young adults architecting arrangements far superior to their status quo. Personally, just to get the discussion going, I suspect the ideal collective unit will be both federated (autonomous units with a council) and digital:

I think the ideal would be a very large property (~50 acres) somewhere cheap but beautiful (Appalachia? Montana?), with multiple independent households in a federal governance structure. Communal houses are just not attractive to most intelligent and high-functioning people. People just like privacy, and control. Also communal houses are not robust because one bad apple can rapidly ruin the whole bunch. My “federated town” model gives every family complete autonomy and privacy, except for whatever mutual obligations are decided. But multiple properties, like in the traditional suburb, provide only the weakest incentives for communal investment. When every household owns an equity stake in one property, you lock in the real forces of real community (if the ship goes down, everyone goes down).

Let’s run the numbers on a hypothetical scenario. As I wrote about previously, there was recently up for sale a whole town in the state of Georgia. It cost $1.7 million.

First, have a look at this video of what comes with our purchase of Tombsboro. Keep in mind this is only an example we’re using to fix ideas; there are actually many abandoned towns all over the USA, so exact location could be negotiated. But seriously, how cool is this?

In that video, I tallied at least 15 buildings suitable for stand-alone, private, family homes. And that’s being very conservative, because I’m not even counting the hotel and bank and such! Let’s be even more conservative for maximum planning realism and assume we could only have 10 families living here.

If we obtained a 30-year mortgage at a 3% interest rate, we could expect monthly payments of about $7,167. And assuming a 20% down payment we would need $340k up front. An abandoned ghost town might need a little work, but I’m assuming the initial group would be intrepid with modest needs and we could do it fixer-upper style after we move in and over time. So let’s just increase that figure by a completely made-up amount and say we’d need $500k up front to buy a ghost town and make it livable enough for 10 not-insane adults to tolerate it. Then we’d need to pay $7,167 every month, starting immediately.

First, let’s solve the down payment. Either the initial group is moderately wealthy people (~10 households each of which have $50k lying around), or a few are quite wealthy (~4 people each have about $125k lying around), or everyone is like me or poorer (I have about $20k liquid) and the rest we make up with private investment from the few kind and visionary readers of my blog who occasionally tell me they want to invest (I usually just say no thanks because I don’t really need or want capital, but after you receive a few of these offers you start to think about what you could do with it). 10 families each with $20k to invest would require an additional $300k to set-up shop in our ghost town. I’m not sure but my gut feeling is that if I found 10 responsible households that were seriously ready to roll, I could scrape together $300k investment from my personal networks on the internet. If only because it’s crazy enough that it would get a ton of buzz, which would bring a lot of people out of the woodwork.

Next, how are we going to pay $7,167/month and have enough to regularly improve and maintain the town? It’s easy to think of many plausible schemes that could work at some point (e.g. rent rooms in the hotel) but honestly I’d rather not count on anything at all speculative.

The easiest and most fail-proof way to solve this problem is to have 10 households that already have a good, stable income through remote work.

This is another reason why the pandemic is a game changer. The number of people who meet this requirement just increased to… everybody. And even if you think post-pandemic workplace norms revert 90% back to pre-pandemic norms (unlikely in my view), that’s still thousands of new people who could potentially do what I’m envisioning. Think about how many smart and productive, married Millenial couples there must be, wanting to have their first baby but postponing because their professional work requires them to live somewhere too expensive and too atomized to build a family. The employers of these couples formerly believed that face-to-face interaction was necessary; they are now learning it is not, and remote workers are cheaper. Thus, when the pandemic is over there will be at least a few thousand Millenial married couples who have both the resources and the newfound freedom to build the community of their dreams. I only need to find 9 of them!

$7,167/month split among 10 households is only $716 a month! Obviously you’d have to add for interest paid to investors, add for developing the properties, add for taxes and a bunch of other things. But as a starting figure, that aint’ bad!

No point getting more specific since these are extremely rough estimates. But remember, I handicapped the estimates very conservatively. You could fit way more people in a whole town; find a cheaper town; luck out with a donor instead of an investor—many ways this could turn out easier and better than I estimate here. As a back-of-the-napkin exercise, it’s enough to convince me something like this is very possible.

The real bottleneck is not financial, I suspect. It’s psychological and sociological. Are there 10 smart, capable, married couples who are weird enough to try something like this? Historically, no. But historically we’ve never been constrained to our neighborhood for weeks on end… And historically 30-year-olds already own homes and have babies. So maybe now is when the truly smart and truly capable Millennials realize their holistic life prospects look much better as desperados...

Personally, if there was a viable opportunity to settle down into a weird and novel lifestyle arrangement that might be risky in some regards but highly anti-fragile to catastrophic threats, my wife and I are probably more favorably disposed than we’ve ever been. By “viable opportunity” I just mean actual, capable people who seem cool, in my inbox, seriously interested in figuring out something like this.

By the way I’m not saying I would never do this with single people, and no disrespect to single people. It’s just that I’m married so it would make the most sense for everyone else to be married.

I’m guessing we’re not the only ones who think about this kind of stuff. A few other data points here… now has a notable contingent of people interested in, or already working on, unorthodox lifestyle designs. I’ve also been contacted by at least three people in the past few months who expressed — unsolicited — a desire to invest financially in some kind of collective project related in some way to lifestyle design. A recent edition of my Signs of Life newsletter was entitled, “If I bought 8 studio apartments, would you visit?” I got a few replies saying yes… Also, the success of Based Mansion seems to further validate the hypothesis of high interest in — and the financial viability of — seemingly weird IRL arrangements.

I know that there’s always been widespread romantic interest in such things; my argument is only that the pandemic may, at the margin, kick some people from the romantic-dreamer category into the fuck-it-let’s-go category.

If anything in this post resonates with you, you should at least say hi. My wife and I are just crazy enough to really consider something like this…

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