Californians are arriving in Montana in droves. But they’re not welcome.

That was in September 2020. By Thanksgiving, they had moved there, joining the thousands of people who have relocated from California to Montana in the past two years. 

While the move was abrupt, Vermel and her husband had thought about leaving the Bay Area for years. She said they would often do “real estate tourism” on Zillow and browse houses in other cities they might move to. They considered Asheville, North Carolina, but there wasn’t much of a tech community there, something her husband was looking for. They also thought about Austin, but quickly realized it wasn’t quite as affordable as it once was, and it wasn’t going to be a big enough improvement in their living situation. They’d almost settled on Ashland, Oregon when the 2020 fire season hit, making the West Coast seem like a less desirable option. 

Vermel is from Montana and still has lots of family there, so once they made the choice, the transition was fairly easy. They were able to sell their Oakland home and get a much larger property in Missoula, the second-largest city in the state. “Being able to sell a Bay Area home meant that we could have a lot more,” she said. “We went from 1,600 square feet with houses packed around us to 180-degree mountain views.” 

But even though they’d found a great home, the real-estate transaction felt contentious and difficult — until the seller found out that Vermel “wasn’t really from California.” The median home price in Missoula has increased 20.5% in the past year, and according to a study conducted by MSU Billings, 75% of real estate agents surveyed saw interested buyers from California.

Many native Montana residents aren’t happy with the amount of out-of-state residents coming in and snapping up homes, and they’re not shy about saying so. Vermel says a friend was harassed at a gas station when she was filling up her car with California plates; Vermel’s dad, who lives in town, has had to defend her right to move back to the state.

Still, this has happened before, Vermel pointed out.  She remembers growing up and seeing anti-California bumper stickers in the late 1980s. She refuses to get discouraged. “This isn’t new. It’s the same old pattern,” she said. 

Lauren Craigie and her boyfriend, who moved to Bozeman in April 2020 and both work in tech, don’t say they moved from California when people ask. They mention the states where they grew up — Connecticut and Ohio respectively —  and they changed their licenses right away. “Part of me is annoyed that [locals] even care. Why are they special for just being born here? Because I’ve lived in so many different places, I don’t feel like a Californian. That was just part of my life,” Craigie said. “I think I’m still navigating the best way to handle that conversation.”

The couple had already planned to move from SoMa to Bozeman when the pandemic hit, hoping to take advantage of the city’s proximity to outdoor activities and lower cost of living. While they love the city, they said the transition wasn’t ideal, since it was hard to meet people during the pandemic. They wish they’d bought a house right away, instead of signing a lease to rent. In Bozeman, the median sales price of a home has increased 25%, and just a few months ago, they put an offer on a house, only to be immediately outbid by a cash offer. They have now decided to just wait it out another year.

“There’s a ton of anti-California sentiment in the area, especially from the all-cash buyers coming in…I do feel awful that if I do buy a home I’m taking it from like a teacher or a firefighter and some people can’t afford to live here anymore,” Craigie said. “I feel like I’m contributing to the problem, but I kind of felt that way in San Francisco too.”

While cost of living is typically a big driver for those leaving the Bay Area, Matthew Cooper wanted to move to a state with more right-leaning politics that matched his own. He’s a truck driver that lives in Sonoma County and doesn’t have much faith in where the country is headed. He wanted to find somewhere rural to live — he also considered Idaho — and learn to “live off the land.” 

He’s already purchased 21 acres outside Helena, but he’s waiting to sell his Sonoma home until he figures out his work situation in Montana. In the meantime, he’s taken his family to visit, and they’re all excited about the move.

Cooper says that he’s also encountered people that are hostile toward another Californian moving in, but he deflects the conversation immediately. “I say yes, I’m from ‘Commiefornia,’ but don’t worry, I’m not bringing any of that crap up here. I’m escaping it. Then everything is fine. There is a lot of opposition to people bringing the politics from here to there.”

For Cooper, who has lived in Sonoma County most of his life, the only thing he’ll miss about Sonoma is the weather. 

Former Marin county resident Megan Hansen moved to Bozeman, MT without having ever visited. Her interactions with locals have been mostly positive, she says.  “When someone asks, you’re almost apologetic when you say you’re from California,” Hansen said. “…I do hope that the Californians coming here are figuring out how we can give back.”

Even in 2019, Carolyne Calvin, a realtor with Keller Williams Montana Realty, said 85% of her buyers were from out of state. Just in 2021 so far, Calvin said the market in and around Bozeman has been so frantic, she’s sold at least 12 homes sight unseen. Those moving from places like Texas, Seattle and the Bay Area know how hot the housing market is, and they don’t have time to come into town every time they want to see a property. She said that while it’s good for business and those that want to sell their home, she feels badly for local buyers that are getting priced out of the immediate market and have to go out to outlying areas.

As with most moves, there are trade offs for those migrating from the Bay Area. Vermel said she misses great restaurants, particularly Mexican food. But she loves that there are dozens of kids on her street the same age as her children and she doesn’t have to worry about them exploring the neighborhood on their own. What she misses most is the diversity in the Bay Area — the state of Montana is 88% white. 

Lance Trebesch, CEO of Eventgroove, said diversity seems like it’s actually gotten slightly better since he moved to Bozeman 17 years ago from the Bay Area, but he believes the city and state still have a long way to go. Hopefully, the growing tech community, coupled with an emerging remote workforce, should help.

“People have figured out what a great place this is,” he said. “The level of outdoor activities is top notch. There’s an emerging tech cluster. The schools are excellent…it’s not perfect, but why not live in a place like this?”

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