Maximizing a feeling of safety in a remote location
May 2, 2021 8:43 PM   Subscribe

After 30+ years in a suburban area in our large southern U.S. city, Mr. Darling and I are considering a move to the country. I'm wondering about how to feel safe when living in an isolated area, as opposed to (or in addition to) actually being safe.

We looked at a house today that's in a very rural and sparsely populated county, although only ~45 minutes from two decent-sized cities. The house is at the end of a gravel road that is shared, up to the property line, with four trailer homes that I believe are all owned by the same person (who lives elsewhere) and look to be in various states of habitation/upkeep. The one neighbor we saw outside waved in a friendly way as we drove past.

The entrance to the property has a gate that can be closed and locked manually, like the kind you might see at the entrance to a park. The property consists of many acres of forest that is not fenced otherwise. The adjacent properties are also large and mainly wooded, so there are no neighbors in view. The house itself has a monitored security system and floodlights. On the surface, it seems like that should be enough to feel fairly secure - and yet, the thought of falling asleep in that house makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. I know that would pass with time as I got accustomed to my new surroundings, but are there other things we can do or buy to ensure a feeling of safety? We do have an old, large dog who barks when people come to the door but is not particularly protective by nature or trained to guard. We would not consider buying a gun. Assume, for the purpose of this exercise, that we have a decent amount of money (though not unlimited) to throw at this problem.

Other info, if helpful but probably just me beanplating: The house in question is not luxurious by the standards of the city where we live now, but seems to be on the larger size compared to the houses we passed on the way to our visit. We drive modest cars and don't have any particularly luxurious possessions, although I suppose anything can be stolen and pawned. I think the isolated setting is what's freaking me out, although that's also what makes the house so charming. Any suggestions, either practical or mental, for convincing my stupid brain that I can be just as safe in the country as I am in the 'burbs?
posted by Sweetie Darling to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I never feel safe in big old country houses on lots of land like that. When I have had to sleep in them alone, I feel most secure in the smallest room, on an upper floor, with a very secure lock on the bedroom door- making sure that the exterior doors and the bedroom door is locked.

Get to know the closest neighbors and folks around town so there’s help a quick phone call away if needed.

When I am supposed to be alone I also make sure my entire house is in fact empty before I go to bed, and that there’s no intruder hanging in a closet waiting to murder me when I go to sleep. Paranoid? Maybe. Probably. Yes. But I sure sleep better.

Having your husband and your dog with you should help. Don’t stay out there alone until you’re really well acclimated.

Or maybe buy a property where there is a neighbor in view, even if within distant view, to feel less isolated.
posted by slateyness at 9:16 PM on May 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Your dog does not have to do more than bark. Intruders don't want to bother with a dog. Which is why I suggest posting "Beware of Dog" signs. Along that line, I suggest always keeping a pair of Mr. Darling's shoes by the door.

I agree with slateyness, get to know the neighbors that are around, not just personally, but what kind of people are they? You may not own a gun, but do they? Are they vigilant types? Are the people in the area close with each other? Will outsiders be noticed?

Another thing to keep in mind is that intruders don't just pick the first house they come across. Is your new house visible from the road? How well travelled is that road? Is your new house remote? Hard to find? Hard to get to?

The less of a target you feel your house is may help you feel like less of a target yourself.
posted by Stuka at 9:44 PM on May 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

When I lived somewhere remote in NZ the first thing I did was join the local volunteer fire brigade - you may have some local org that does something like that.

It accomplished several things:
1 - People knew who we were so they didn't have to invent a story about us. 2 - I got to know the neighbourhood out to a 20km radius very well, who lived around, who was friendly, and who to avoid, and who the best service people were for everything, - people would call each other up and report new cars, planes/choppers and people - it was very reassuring, 3 - you get a faster response from local fire compared with cops who are at least an hours' fast drive away.

A crunchy gravel driveway and house surround, and geese work well as natural alarms.
posted by unearthed at 10:14 PM on May 2, 2021 [17 favorites]

You could install security cameras, which could have the benefit of doubling as “wildlife cameras,” depending on where you put them. Checking the footage and seeing deer or rabbits or whatever, doing their thing, might give you another way to acclimate, emotionally. Bird feeder might be nice, too.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:28 PM on May 2, 2021 [5 favorites]

Can I ask you to clarify what makes you feel unsafe? I grew up in a setting like you describe and I can't ever remember feeling unsafe. I now live in a fairly dense but nice urban environment and I've definitely felt more unsafe in cities than out in the sticks. I've had far more interaction with crime (cars broken into, neighbors raided by cops in the middle of the night, etc) in even the nicer parts of large cities, for sure. We did have guns, and I was trained to handle them, but I never even thought about raising one in anger. Someone stole the sign my father built for his hobby business from the top of our 750 driveway, and I think once someone dug up a tree that had been recently planted, also at the top of our driveway. Aside from that, my dad did make a point of knowing all the neighbors, but as far as I can tell that was more about e.g.: trading handyman stuff for them plowing our driveway in the winter, etc.
posted by Alterscape at 10:56 PM on May 2, 2021 [5 favorites]

are there other things we can do or buy to ensure a feeling of safety?

You know, as someone who lives in an apartment block in Hong Kong, I can't give you rural-home-safety advice. But I look at this statement from your question and unearthed's comment above and wonder whether you are indeed ready to move to a place like this, where people may very well rely on neighbors in truly meaningful ways to make up for responsibilities not provided by a state or county or city or some other civic authority.

Suburban/urban life lets you customize nearly every element of your out-of-house experience, implying that you have a near-infinite amount of choice of goods, services and activities, especially if you drive. There is an anonymity there that can feel reassuringly private and comforting - perhaps I'd even say safe. In fact, I choose to be a little more distant with my neighbors than I'd be somewhere else, mostly because it's part of the culture here to respect people's very limited private time and space, and because I don't want to impose.

But in an area as rural as what you are describing, I wonder if you may be thinking that the incredible base of local knowledge and relationships unearthed describes above is not so much helpful and warm and reassuring but suffocating and inescapable.

Like, looking back at unearthed's comment, would you be willing to join a volunteer fire department - and thus be responsible for putting out fires, and have everyone know that you're that volunteer firefighter person, and march in the annual parade? Would you be OK with the residents of the four households on your gravel driveway knowing when you have left for the day, or talking about your new car or new dog or new curtains down at the local supermarket when you aren't around? Would you shovel snow for a neighbour if that neighbour treated you poorly at some earlier juncture?

I live in a city, and will always live in a city, because I feel safest in a crowd, and safest within the anonymity that having millions of other people around oneself brings. I can't see myself feeling safe in a tiny community, the residents of which I cannot realistically get away from if I want to without moving away. I worry especially about small groups of people in communities like this being able to take over local government and implement some truly wild policies and ideas. A city insulates its residents from this through sheer size. Do you trust this place to do the same?

I say all this to state that there may not actually be a way for you to feel safe in this house. Nothing you buy, short of making your house an impregnable fortress, is going to make you feel different. You might be able to overcome the feeling by fully integrating yourself into the community, but do you see yourself wanting to, or being able, to do so?
posted by mdonley at 11:18 PM on May 2, 2021 [23 favorites]

I would look at crime statistics for the area. My guess is that there is little crime. Statistically, you are very unlikely to be a victim especially in your home. If you don't want a gun or weapon, cold comfort will come from the diminimus statistical chance of anything happening to you.

I had a cabin in the Adirondacks that was extremely remote. Knowing my neighbors and becoming part of the community helped me be more confident. Admittedly, my 9mm Glock also gave me confidence.

I have lived in cities, suburban and rural. I also thought about safety a lot. I came to the conclusion that I was safest from random crime in the country. What would worry me about rural was if I knew someone such as a stalker was specifically out to get me.
posted by AugustWest at 12:10 AM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

I moved from the city to the sticks and I’ve never felt safer than where I am now. Granted, I live in a trailer so maybe I’m one of the riffraff you’re concerned about but...this is the first place I’ve lived where I know all my neighbors and we regularly help each other out because we have to. For example, we watch out for each other to make sure everyone evacuates in case of wildfire; when I was ill with a suspected case of Covid last year my neighbors brought me food and checked on me every day because they knew I wouldn’t be able to get to town and delivery isn’t a thing here. People leave their doors unlocked and keys in their vehicles here. I can’t see my neighbors from my place but I know they’re close and have my back if need be. So, my advice for feeling safer out there is to get to know your neighbors. Take reasonable precautions like locking your doors but IMO it feels safer to live in the country than in the suburbs or city once you get used to the quiet, which at first can definitely feel eerie.
posted by sparringnarwhal at 12:20 AM on May 3, 2021 [13 favorites]

I live in a house like that about 2/3 of my time, the rest in the middle of the city. I inherited the house from my grandparents, so I've been here all of my life and never been scared.

Being here makes me feel safe and happy. I love the quiet, and the deer and the fox and the hedgehog in my garden, and I'm learning about all the birds and the insects. I can go for long walks in the nature preserve just north of my property, and buy freshly caught fish from the local fishermen.

That said, right when I had finished renovating the house, burglars broke in while I was away, and stole a lot of the furniture and all of my dinner plates and pots and pans. (Weird). There were no real valuables, but it made me feel uncomfortable. However, the thieves forgot a cushion for one of the chairs, and came back for it several times while I was home! That was when I realized that they were scared of my dog, in spite of the fact that he is useless as a guard dog. They came up the driveway, the dog started barking, and they backed off. In the end, they were caught burgling a cottage nearby, and I haven't had any problems for 7 years.

In the meanwhile, I have gotten to know my "neighbors" (people who live within a radius of five miles). I lend out my fields to one of them, who raises horses on them. That means he comes over once a day. Sometimes I go out to chat, sometimes I don't. He introduces me to other "neighbors", one is coming over today to dig up some trees I don't need.
You may not have fields, but one of your neighbors might be interested in hunting rights, I know one of mine is. Hunters are often very caring and protective of the land, and keep a good eye on every inch of it.
My closest neighbors often ride past my house or walk their dog on my tracks, which is nice.
And I "inherited" an old man who mows the lawn sometimes. He is incredibly nosy, and kind of a local gossip, which is irritating when I am here, but practical when I'm away. In the beginning he was very useful, now I feel I have enough local grounding that he isn't as necessary, but I feel bad about firing him.

To cut a long story short: your dog is your guard, even though he isn't, and get to know your neighbors. In the countryside, people help one another.
posted by mumimor at 1:11 AM on May 3, 2021 [9 favorites]

I know exactly how you feel. I lived in towns and cities my whole life but at the start of 2020 we moved from central London to a very rural part of England - we have fields between us and each of our nearest neighbours, the closest shop, pub, etc are three miles away.

Logically, as AugustWest says, there is more crime in cities, but I felt safer when I lived in a (nice) apartment block surrounded by people. I do feel more vulnerable here, more exposed. It’s nothing to do with logic though.

However, mostly it’s fine. We’ve gradually got to know people which has helped, knowing there are friendly people not too far away. The longer we live here without any incidents, the safer it feels. It takes time. After dark is, unsurprisingly, the worst time, and I make sure doors are locked etc. A couple of times I’ve been in bed and started getting paranoid about noises outside - the mind whirls and it’s not fun. But it was nothing. Mostly, it’s fine and peaceful.

I was slightly surprised how different it feels when I’m here alone though. 99% of the nights when I’m here with Mrs Fabius I feel completely fine. But when she’s away, as soon as it’s dark I do feel less safe. Again, it’s not logical. Then, I always have music or the TV on, to fill the silence, which helps.

None of this is practical advice for you, sorry, but I wanted to say I know how you feel. It sounds like your place is pretty secure. It’s good that you’re conscious of safety, but try not to worry. Get to know people, lock up at night, and enjoy your new home.
posted by fabius at 1:15 AM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

You could consider fencing in the part of the property directly around the house to create a safer-feeling, smaller "perimeter" that you can protect and that creates a practical and psychological distinction between the immediate area of the house and the rest of the property. I recently moved from an apartment in a doorman building to a single family home (still in the city, though) and it does make me feel a lot safer that there is some very serious fencing between the street and any of the ground-floor windows! I never have to worry at all that somebody might peer in or the like.
posted by phoenixy at 1:57 AM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

You could get a driveway sensor which will set off a chime or alarm if a person or vehicle crosses the infrared beam. This might be annoying at night though if you have deer which might set it off.
posted by essexjan at 2:06 AM on May 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

We live remote and rural, in the last inhabited house 300m up a gravel track. We had some kit stolen while we were in the year-long process of moving in. It was probably a known enterprising neighbour. I believe we are protected from randomers by the fact that no outsider can believe anyone lives up such a beat-up lane. We felt we'd arrived when our abutting neighbour stopped speaking to us after an altercation about cattle and damage. 4 years later the lane washed out in a storm and the same neighbour rough-dressed the surface with his tractor so that we could get the car out. And then went back to blanking us.

I'm going to paradoxically suggest that you bulldoze the locked gate which signals that a) someone lives up there and b) they have assets. That will divert the attention of any villains to the gated neighbours who are better adjusted to the quiet. You don't have to feel like a shit-heel about it because, as you acknowledge, the villains are largely imaginary.

And it should help if you make a point of going outside on dark and stormy nights to appreciate just how few people have the stamina for lurking in wet undergrowth. And also what others have said about becoming known to your neighbours; it doesn't require cake, just courtesy and acknowledgement.
posted by BobTheScientist at 4:25 AM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

I rather suspect the subjective feeling of safety has little correlation with the objective risk.

Living in the country requires coming to terms with the wildlife. There aren't many wild creatures the will attack a human unprovoked, and they're rare. Like mountain lions, maybe. But if you want a vegetable garden, you will be in constant battle with groundhogs, rabbits, and deer. Dogs and cats can run loose, but risk unfortunate encounters with skunks, porcupines, and raccoons. You may see a snake from time to time. (The poisonous ones are mostly south of the Mason Dixon line, but could be anywhere.)
posted by SemiSalt at 5:53 AM on May 3, 2021

Assess the actual risks. Check the crime statistics for the area; some rural areas have lots of meth and other drug abuse with the ensuing crime. I don't know where you're looking, but forested areas in the US West are extremely susceptible to fire, less so on the East Coast. Security systems abound, and a mix of lights including motion-activated is helpful, but please don't light up the night sky too much. I'd get 2 dogs of a territorial and bark-y nature, poodles, retrievers, German shepherds, pit bull, because a big space is perfect for dogs, and they like company. If I were considering such a significant lifestyle change, I'd rent a place in the country for a month and see how it felt.
posted by theora55 at 6:30 AM on May 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

are you scare of people or of animals or of isolation? i lived in philadelphia for 12 years and lived for a year in rural northern michigan and visit my parents there frequently. i felt significantly less safe in philadelphia. crime stats will bear that out. most crimes in more rural areas are "known person crimes" whereas cities will have a few more things like muggings, etc.

please also remember that the size/"shabbiness" of someone's house doesn't necessarily correlate with their character. just because your neighbors live in a trailer or have cars on blocks doesn't mean they're going to come get you or something. i am as antisocial as they come, but in a rural setting do not underestimate the importance of a friendly wave as you drive by and introducing yourself when you move in.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:58 AM on May 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

As someone living in a small town in a county where I have started seeing Trump 2024 flags, and where the vaccination rate against covid is plateauing around 40% of the population, I can understand your trepidation. Why are you considering this move? That's not meant to be a discouraging question, but what factors are leading you out to the country?

Where's the nearest town, and what is the economy like? In our case, we live inside a college bubble - our neighbors are my partner's colleagues and retired colleagues; we have a local concentration of people who share a work culture and habits of thought. When I meet people not immersed in this bubble, I am cautious about sharing personal information and making assumptions about how people think on any given issue. It's uncomfortable sometimes tbh.

The local folks (and to some extent the college folks) are people who will tell me that they like living in the country, they like the space and the scale of it. I am probably someone who prefers a smaller city (like 750,000 people sounds good? lots of things to do, lots of different food to eat and a really solid international grocery store or more than one) but there are real pleasures out here. It's quiet, there are so many creatures, the sky and the trees and the birds are great. Choices are simpler - there is one elementary school in town, so that's where my kid will go.

Maybe the house you just looked at is not the right house, something about the arrangement made you uncomfortable. It's okay to keep looking.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:07 AM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

My parents live in a fairly rural place that used to be a lot MORE rural and one of the things they did was pay for the power company to put in a security light. It's basically a street-lamp type thing that lights up their driveway at night.

Other than that, for the reasons that Lawn Beaver posts above, I would not personally move to a rural area in the US right now for all the tea in China. I will take my urban risks.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:14 AM on May 3, 2021

Lawn Beaver has a point, but I don't think it is so simple. Before, I would never state my political or religious opinions out here. But in the last decade or so things have changed. Back in the day (like 50 years ago), our family befriended a man who had a nickname that indicated he was an out-of-towner, even though it was his grandfather who had migrated from another part of the country. Now, when I took over the farm, I was greeted with warmth and kindness. People in the countryside here know well that they need new people. And with that has come political tolerance and even some people changing their own opinions.
Also, when a few people move in, if it is a succes, it doesn't take long before others follow. Two other urban families moved here the same time as me, now there are many. My boss is looking for land here, so he can build himself a house from scratch. My old mentor has a farm in the other end of the country, but has rented a vacation house for this summer. They come for a visit, stay for much longer.
I've begun to actively work on this. Last summer, I hosted a lunch for people who work within my field in the wider region. It was a huge succes and will be repeated. Already people are asking if they can be on the list.
I know this is not the US, but if there is one thing I have noticed after all these years on MetaFilter, it is that the urban/rural divide has had very similar expressions. Sometimes the trend in the US is a bit ahead, sometimes we are ahead.
posted by mumimor at 7:48 AM on May 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

I rather suspect the subjective feeling of safety has little correlation with the objective risk.

All else being equal, you're safer where there's more traffic. Traffic = witnesses. Like Arthur Conan Doyle said, "The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser." Folks living in the less dense suburbs and feeling blissfully safe are actually having the lack of density compensated for by segregation and hyperpolicing elsewhere.

However, all else is rarely equal. I think consulting local crime statistics should give you some idea of whether the area is currently peaceful or troubled by property crime (whether that be the "local teens doing dumb stuff" type or the "meth users looking to steal anything that's not nailed down" type). Make friends with your neighbors. Consider installing some smart lights so that you can trigger them remotely if you wake up and hear a noise (can you put the floodlights on such a system, if they're not already)? They are also good for running on a schedule when you're away to give the impression that the house may be occupied. You might also want to buy a video doorbell system, which normally I loathe but in this case won't impinge on the privacy of your neighbors. (But that's a tradeoff for your own privacy.) Buy a baseball bat to keep in your bedroom. The mere presence of a dog is a deterrent; you don't need to buy and train a German shepherd.

Finally, if you're feeling like your nearest neighbors are poor and shady, reconsider whether you should move there. I'm not saying that you are, but there's a slight undertone in your descriptions that makes me wonder. It's not a nice attitude to bring to a place.
posted by praemunire at 7:51 AM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

My partner lives in this sort of area, and they get a lot of their emotional sense of safety (and maybe also their practical safety) from getting to know their neighbors. You learn who drives what car and when they come and go, and you build relationships with your neighbors until you trust them to do the same, and pretty soon you'll find that basically all the coming and going is familiar people doing familiar things — "Oh, it's the guy who brings hay for that one family every month or two" or "Yup, it's Thursday, so-and-so is leaving early for work" or whatever. You'll probably also learn that even the undesirable coming and going is pretty benign — kids jackassing around on trails in the woods on dirt bikes or whatever — and then you can decide whether to tolerate it or put up more gates and signs to deter it or what.

The way my partner got to know their neighbors was partly just old-fashioned friendliness, but a lot of it was participating in the local economy and being chattier than necessary while doing it. I dunno, hire someone to watch your dog sometimes and then chat a bunch about dogs and how much you like dogs. Buy eggs from someone, or patronize someone's landscaping business, or whatever. As a city-dweller I once was totally flabbergasted to watch them walk up to a total stranger at a gas station and be like "Oh! That's a really nice water tank you've got in the back of your truck! Where'd you get it?", and then they walked away with useful information, and it's not like they made friends or anything, but maybe if they cross paths a few more times they will.

Neighbors are also good for information about when bad shit is happening around town. Like, if there is a bunch of burglary happening, the people who know about it will be people who've lived there a long time and are better connected than you. They'll probably also know what's getting stolen and how it's being done. And meanwhile, if you've got the sort of relationship where you hear about bad shit happening, then it's easier to trust emotionally that there isn't Secret Bad Shit that's going to sneak up on you.

This all probably works better because my partner's town is poor but not desperate. Lots of people are on public assistance, I feel like most people go to the food pantry at least occasionally, but there are also lots of people with jobs or small businesses. There's an opioid problem, but there are also public services to help, and it's not like the only people making money are drug dealers. People are frustrated at being outvoted by the big city a few hours away, and some are big Trump voters, but it's frustration and resentment and not, like, generations of brutal oppression and seething rage. Probably all those things would make it harder to build trust, and also genuinely less safe.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:34 AM on May 3, 2021 [6 favorites]

Have you watched the trailers at night? Like 2 am on Friday?

If you do move in the dog needs some work. I strongly suggest that the two of you walk the property lines every morning for the first month you live there so the dog knows what it is responsible for. I can't stress this enough. The dog will thank you in many ways if you do this.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 9:39 AM on May 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

Oh yes Mr. Yuck, my dog knows exactly where the lines go, I'm a bit surprised at how easy it was to teach him that. It must be knowledge dogs like to have.
posted by mumimor at 9:42 AM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Okay, so I have lived, and felt safe, in lots of different places: suburbs, my college town, a rural area where I lived on several wooded acres, a large city, and one giant city. I think it's a matter of time. I think I was probably scared of the woods when I first moved there. You'll get used to it. It might be helpful for you to look up property crime statistics in the new area, because my guess is that crime is pretty low. Meet your neighbors. They will regard you as rich city slickers most likely (sounds like you are, compared to them!).

Honestly, a security system like that in a rural area, and a gate, sounds like ... a lot. I don't think you need to throw money at this problem. I suspect a lot of your neighbors don't even lock the doors at night (I don't think I did, when I lived in the woods.) A dog that barks is a great security system. It might be more helpful to think through what your fears are. Some of these might be childhood fears, of the woods, perhaps? I don't mean this in a patronizing way, but we grow up with fairy tales telling us that the woods are scary.

So what's the fear? That someone will come and rob the house in the middle of the night? That sounds like a terrible idea, because they have a very limited escape path, either on foot through the woods to a road with only one way out, or down your driveway (if they've busted through the gate or something?). These are not great options. Someone who wants to steal something might find easier targets.

If you're worried about a menacing group of terrible people... well, are you hearing lots of stories of home invasions in that rural area like this?

So I say lean into figuring out your worst fears here, not because I want you to indulge them, but because I think if you take them far enough, you're going to realize these are pretty unlikely situations. If you are in an area with a lot of vacation homes, you might hear about them being broken into during the off season. In that case, you just want to make it clear that someone lives there. And get to know your neighbors. Wave back.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:04 PM on May 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

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