North Dakota: A Greatly Underrated Place to Live

I was asked to speak to the Enderlin Lions Club on 11/27/07 about why we moved to North Dakota.

Here is a quick summary of the talk and my logic for moving to North Dakota:

Back in 2005 I became worried that home prices might fall dramatically in Nevada (they sure did) and wanted to capture gains before that occurred.

I did a thorough search for the best place in the U.S. to raise a family.

I considered:

  • Home Prices
  • Schools
  • Safety
  • Infrastructure
  • The commodity supercycle
    (I was looking for a commodity dependent area that was depressed for the last 20 years and would boom for the next 20 years)

North Dakota won on all counts.

It should continue to do very well until 2016-18 or so. The commodity bull started in 1998.

The book Hot Commodities by Jim Rodgers does a beautiful job explaining the commodity supercycle and really shaped my thinking.

A lot has changed for North Dakota since I gave this talk. I will leave it up since it has proven to be accurate and the broader context still applies. The commodity portion still particulary applies. I can't speak about the cost of living in the western half of the state since the oil boom hit, but it still applies to eastern North Dakota. Homes are still very reasonable in the small towns and it is still a nice place to live.

A video of the talk:

Transcription of the talk:

I was asked to talk about what I do for a living as well as why we moved to North Dakota, how riveting that is I don’t know. How I am able to work for a company in Nevada and live in Enderlin, North Dakota is that I am a computer programmer. I work for a little company that does third party for fulfillment for clients that sell via catalogs. I do web application programming. I am an independent consultant and have a company called Hurlburt and Associates, Inc. and I contract to different companies. Microsoft Windows environments keep improving and it gets easier and easier to work from wherever you want assuming your company will go for it.

As you can see, I have a big family to feed and I thought if my income is the same, why not look for a place to live where I could get a lot of value for the money. I did a pretty thorough search and many places that were reasonable 5 years ago had shot up house price wise. In deciding where to live I looked at all the things people normally consider: school scores, house prices, safety, fun things to do in the area. When I dug into it, I have to say that North Dakota in general and Enderlin specifically are the best deals in the United States.

For instance school scores. There is a website called where you can do comparisons of elementary schools. Where we were in Nevada, the median test score at the local elementary was the 52nd percentile, slightly above average. The median test score in Enderlin North Dakota (50 miles southeast of Fargo North Dakota) is in the 86th percentile. (Note:This was calculated using the listing for Enderlin Elementary for 2005 when we were evaluating the move. My son was in 3rd grade so I used the 3rd grade score. I averaged the 79 % reading and 93 % Math to arrive at the 86%.) We have noticed that in this area, the average person is pretty sharp and school scores bear that out. This is a big positive day to day.

House prices: In the Western United States, the average house price is $ 240,000. I had read what an incredible deal North Dakota real estate is on the internet. We checked in Fargo and Kindred and found that prices were still a little high. We came to Enderlin and thought it was still within a reasonable distance to Fargo. I saw a nice little house for sale and thought, if that place is $ 60,000 I am buying it. I call the realtor and she says it is $ 15,000! I suddenly have all these thoughts of freedom going through my head. When you have a family to feed, saving $ 2000 on a mortgage is meaningful. I have a friend who has a very similar house in Oakland CA, identical square footage, was built in the same era. His house is worth $ 800,000. North Dakota housing is some of the most stable in the country. The State of North Dakota is near the bottom in foreclosures. .

Crime is obviously another variable, and North Dakota is one of the safest places in the United States.

The people are also another consideration. I was familiar with the “Minnesota Nice” phenomenon. In the upper Midwest there seems to be a good work ethic and the people are kind and humble and all this good stuff. North Dakota has that same tendency as Minnesota with maybe a little more self reliance and less liberal politics. I don’t know I am sure it varies from person to person. Anyway, everything was lining up in favor of North Dakota when we did our research, I would say the truly this area is one of the most amazing deals.

Specific to the house I was considering, this all got the wheels spinning – why is it such a good deal? Was the house a former Superfund site or was someone slaughtered there? Why is it such a deal? It turned out that although this was a pretty good deal, generally all the houses were similar. I originally went to school for geology and so I am familiar with why it is such a good deal here. Commodity super cycles tend to go in 20 year cycles. North Dakota had a lot of stuff working against it for the last 30 years with the depression in agricultural commodities.

When I first got out of school geology jobs went from being abundant to sparse, there were no jobs in mining or the petroleum industry. All the commodities move in unison. Now geology booming and I thought, North Dakota is probably going to come roaring back. It is such a long cycle that people don’t remember the good times. I thought Enderlin could do very well. If there is an energy crisis, North Dakota will do very well because of its coal reserves, it has a little bit of oil (more than a little with the recent reassessment of the Bakken Formation reservoir, there are huge oil deposits), North Dakota has some of the best potential for harvesting wind energy in the United States, farming and ethanol, the list goes on and on. Energy wise, North Dakota is blessed.

So with nice people, lots of potential for economic growth, about as unloved price wise as any place could ever be with nowhere to go but up. Where we moved from home prices have gone down and I saw that North Dakota was one of two states that still had appreciating real estate. Well there was nowhere for to go but up because it was so inexpensive. That was the rationale for moving here and we have been incredibly pleasantly surprised since we have. The one obvious downer when people mention North Dakota is the weather. Even that has not been a bad thing for us, in the winter it makes you feel alive and it is an actual threat to your safety so it keeps you on your toes and keeps you from taking things for granted and encourages planning.

I have an article on heating with a wood stove if you do decide to move to North Dakota. If you live in a cold climate, do yourself a favor and get one.

That is why we moved here. Does anyone have any questions about my job or how we ended up here ?

Question: Do you think there is potential for other people, not a huge number, but other like you to decide to move to North Dakota?

Answer: I think it is a no-brainer. I get on topics and read a lot and my topic lately has been economics. From this reading, I am very convinced that there is going to be a surprisingly sharp energy crisis that people are not anticipating. Being a former geologist I keep up on this a bit and in the 1980s - 90’s the market was flooded with cheap oil by the invention of horizontal drilling (or called directional drilling) technology. Everyone thought that the greater quantity of oil they were pumping indicated there was more oil available but it was really just a fatter straw to suck the oil out of the ground faster. (Matt Simmons great book Twilight in the Desert has the details on this issue). Many of the worlds biggest oil reservoirs are going into very rapid decline as result of this technology, Cantarell in Mexico, people think Saudi Arabia, the North Sea, etc... The oversupply caused by horizontal drilling caused prices to decline and slowed exploration for years and lulled everyone to sleep; this is going to bite us big time. The price of oil I think is going to be very high.

As I said about North Dakota's energy blessings, it will do well in that regard. On top of that if the price of oil goes really high, all these knowledge worker office type jobs will be forced to work from home. We used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. People there get in their cars and they idle on the highways stop and go for 45 minutes to get to work. In an energy crisis, that’s done. If oil is 150 dollars barrel it is no longer economic for someone to do that. The employer will have to allow people to work from home. The more people that are allowed to work from home, the more people will reason as I did, that if you can have a mortgage for ten cents on the dollar and have it be safe, nice people, this laundry list of positives, why wouldn’t people move to North Dakota ?

Even comparing Enderlin to other towns, think about the infrastructure here. We have been so pleasantly surprised by the library, the brilliant librarian, Maple Valley meats has incredible meats, (the grain fed beef is vastly superior to the western range fed beef in my opinion), the store, the hardware store, the lumber yard, the great pool, the amazing golf course.

The Enderlin Golf Course is pretty amazing considering for the size of the town. The hunting around here - generally North Dakota hunting is off the charts. So if people are free to live where they want they will probably choose a town where it is safe, nice people, extremely reasonably priced. I don’t know, North Dakota just seems like a good place, a real value.

Question: When you have a $400,000 home, do you really expect to pay it off?

Answer: I read that in California 90 % of all mortgages in the last two years have been ARMS, adjustable rate mortgages, the kind that are going to blow up in everyone’s faces. The reason for that is that because property values have gone so high, no one can afford them with a fixed rate mortgage. Even my friend, who makes a lot of money, got an adjustable rate mortgage. Things are just radically overpriced. I think things will equilibrate, Enderlin and North Dakota will go up and the rest of the country will come down in price.

Comment: Bill, you have to realize that if you had negotiated a little bit you could have gotten that $15,000 house for less.

Answer: When I was in still in Nevada, I was in a Blockbuster store and talked to a guy from North Dakota. I had told at least 10 different people that I had bought a nice house for $15,000. Invariable there jaws dropped. But this guy from North Dakota was completely unimpressed. He said: “You overpaid, my Dad just got a place for $9,000.” As far as being able to sleep at night, this business of having a $400,000 house; that is a ball and chain psychologically. You feel can’t miss a day of work when sick, you can’t slip in any way, it is horrible. And that is the situation most people find themselves in. The peace of mind that comes with having a reasonable home, I think this place can’t help but do well. If word got out it could be a stampede to North Dakota. There is a whole category of worker that could work from home and they probably also are sick of being pinched by a big mortgage. The DSL internet access through Moore and Liberty is great as it is in most small North Dakota towns, so working from home is possible. DISH network is a great equalizer for small towns – having a digital video recorder where you can pause the TV and watch all the shows on your own time and skip the commercials – it is the most high tech thing imaginable – it’s like we live in the Silicon Valley. The other thing is that as far as lifestyle goes, there really isn’t any hit that we have to take. The pool, the golf course – what a nice golf course for such a small town. If you are really looking to get the word out, I could write up my experience. But I think that will probably take care of itself. 

When I talk to friends back in California and Nevada, the first reaction they have about North Dakota is the weather. I don’t really know how to counter that other than to say that I have found that I enjoy the extremes, as strange as that sounds. I had a buddy that was getting on my case, asking – why North Dakota? He asked – isn’t everyone there fat? I told him I had just read a study that said the upper midwest including North Dakota has the highest life expectancy in the country – and by a pretty wide margin. So this area has the healthiest people in the country contrary to whatever stereotype he had. (if you define not dying as the ultimate measure of health)

They did a study and were expecting to correlate income to longevity and they found this huge anomaly across the upper Midwest where the people weren’t the richest, but they were living the longest. It has to do with the choices the average citizens are making – they are good, responsible people in these parts.

When we went to get our car insurance, which is a great litmus test of the general responsibility level of the average citizen, how many people are cracking up cars, the cost in North Dakota was one third of what we paid in the west, one third ! That’s astounding.

There was also another study about charity. It said that in general people on the coasts talk about charity but don’t do much giving, whereas people in this area don’t talk about it but they give much higher percentages of their salaries to charity. This was a story on 20/20. Anyway, there are a lot of misconceptions about the Midwest generally and North Dakota specifically, but I think if people knew more about it they would be flocking here.

If you are thinking about a business relocation to North Dakota, you will find really solid employees here. If you are considering a family relocation to North Dakota, I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

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