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Montana Life - Moving to Montana

Beautiful lakes, mountain vistas, nature trails, and recreational opportunities abound in Flathead County. Located in Northwestern Montana just 2 hours south of Canada, the county is referenced as the gateway to Glacier National Park and the famous Going to the Sun Road. 

If you prefer to watch a video with this information click here.

Montana Living - West Glacier Montana

Flathead County covers just over 5,000 square miles with a population that recently surpassed 100,000 and continues to grow. Flathead Valley boasts an airport, Amtrak station, 2 ski resorts, 8 golf courses, mountain bike trails, cross country skiing and snowshoeing trails, over 269 lakes and reservoirs, campgrounds, diverse wildlife, fishing, hunting, and more. 

It’s easy to see why this county draws new residents every year. But, is it the right location for you and your family?

It’s easy to see why this county draws new residents every year. But, is it the right location for you and your family? In this series of blog posts and videos I hope to answer those questions and help you determine not only if Flathead Valley is the best place for your family, but which city or area within the county best fits your needs. Be sure to subscribe and reach out with any questions you may have about Montana living.

Montana Living - Whitefish Montana Amtrak Station

Flathead County Cities and Areas Covered in this Series

Kalispell 

Whitefish 

Columbia Falls & West Glacier

Bigfork & Creston 

Lower Valley, Somers, Lakeside 

Overview + walking/driving tour

Montana Living - Whitefish Montana Main Street

City Guides and What They Cover

School Districts/Ratings

Accessibility to shopping/recreation

Hiking trails, ski mountains, biking trails

Real Estate Prices

Positives/Negatives

Crime Rating

Taxes/Utilities

Montana Living - Somers Montana Rails to Trails

I’m excited to share these city guides with you, but first let’s back up a bit and find out how we ended up moving across the country to Montana nearly 6 years ago. Plus, I want to give you a few items to consider about the area before determining if it’s right for you.

How We Ended up in Flathead County

Almost 6 years ago our family of four made the move across the country from Ohio to Montana. A year prior we started contemplating our five year plan. Chad prayed about it for a few days and created a list of 10 or so items. On that list was living somewhere near mountain, valley, and slope. In high school he had participated in a youth group ski trip to Colorado and the memories and experience stuck with him. He had recently become self employed, and for the first time in our married life we were no longer restricted to location by vocation. It was a liberating realization, but a bit overwhelming as well. Our parents and siblings lived in Ohio and Michigan and our daughters who were 9 and 7 at the time loved visiting grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Moving further away would definitely limit those special moments. 

It was a liberating realization, but a bit overwhelming as well.

We started researching locations that met the criteria of mountain, valley, and slope. Colorado, Lake Tahoe, Jackson Hole, Vermont, Utah and Montana. At first I was drawn to Colorado. I wasn’t familiar with Montana and it seemed so far away from everything so initially, it fell further down on my list. But, we quickly realized that the cost of living in Lake Tahoe and Jackson Hole were far out of our reach. And, to my surprise the ski resorts were several hours away from Denver. We really wanted to be within an hour or less of a ski resort so Colorado was fading fast due to distance and/or cost of living and Vermont didn’t have quite the elevation we were hoping for. So, Montana appeared at the top of our list for a second look. Google must have heard us because Chad searched for tailoring images for a website he was creating and this picture of Jesus came up. It was a strange placement amongst pinstriped fabrics and sewing machines causing him to take a second look and click through. 

Turns out it was a photo of a statue at Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort which prompted a new google search for Whitefish, Montana.

Turns out it was a photo of a statue at Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort which prompted a new google search for Whitefish, Montana. This small town in Flathead County ticked our box for being close to a ski resort, near an airport, and provided the added benefit of close proximity to Glacier National Park for infinite outdoor possibilities. We joke to this day that Whitefish Jesus called us to move there. 

Montana Living - Whitefish Mountain Jesus Statue

The area sounded promising, but we knew nothing about Montana. What was the crime like? How about the schools? Were bears a real threat? And, what about housing costs? We booked a vacation over the girl’s Winter break to check out the area and Whitefish Mountain ski resort. During our visit, we met with a local realtor who showed us some houses in Whitefish, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, and Lakeside. 

During our visit, we met with a local realtor who showed us some houses in Whitefish, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, and Lakeside.

We also met with a builder, visited a local church, skied three days on the mountain, enjoyed some local restaurants and shopping and soaked our tired legs in the hot tub at Grouse Mountain Lodge while contemplating our move and dreaming about the future. 

Cinque Terre Italy

In flight back to Ohio, Chad looked at me and said “This is the first place that feels like I’m leaving home to go home.” It was a very telling statement, prompting us to place a “For Sale” sign in the yard upon our return. In May of that year (3 months after our Montana visit) we were in Italy with my sister and brother-in-law. My sister, Becky and I wanted to hike Cinque Terre (you can read more about that here) while the guys decided they would rather drive to Milan to visit the Savinelli pipe factory and purchase a souvenir. I don’t know if you believe in prayer, but we felt like God showed up multiple times throughout this process to reassure our decision. On the drive back to Cinque Terre, Chad was talking to my brother-in-law Chris about the move, if it was a good idea, if we would be able to afford it, and the general stresses and concerns that come with a life event of that magnitude. 

As he was contemplating it all, he looked up to see a large billboard along the Italian highway that said MONTANA in large print.

As he was contemplating it all, he looked up to see a large billboard along the Italian highway that said MONTANA in large print. When they arrived back at the flat in Cinque Terre he pulled up a photo on his phone of the billboard and said “Hey, God gave me a sign…. literally.” I laughed and said “That’s crazy, because I got an email offer on our house today.” We accepted the offer and enjoyed the remainder of our Italian vacation before heading back to Ohio to pack up our belongings and make the cross country journey to Montana.

Savinelli Pipe Factory - Milan Italy

Buying a House - Virtually

We had never bought a house online before sight unseen. But, everything was already so unconventional that it seemed to make sense in a weird sort of way. I was a bit paranoid about leaving our white picket fence neighborhood in Ohio, so after studying area sex offender maps (this alone can bring on paralysis by analysis) and analyzing school ratings (none of which were as highly rated as the girl’s school in Oakwood, Ohio) I would search homes on Zillow and send them to our realtor (the one we met with during our visit). She would then take us through a virtual tour of the homes and we narrowed it down from there. The first time we saw our home in person was the day we drove up to it in the moving truck.

The first time we saw our home in person was the day we drove up to it in the moving truck.

This method worked out well for us, however, if you buy a home this way be sure to ask your realtor for a 360 degree view of the home’s surroundings as well. For some reason our realtor didn’t think of this and I failed to ask. I drove by our second home choice after we arrived and was relieved that we didn’t buy that one. It was downtown and within walking distance to many businesses (something I loved about our Ohio home) however, it backed up to an apartment complex and I had no idea that was there. I have no problem with apartment complexes, we’ve lived in and enjoyed them. I just prefer to know my neighbors when my kids are outside often playing in the yard. I imagine Google street views could help with this as well. 

If you buy a home this way be sure to ask your realtor for a 360 degree view of the home’s surroundings as well.

To my dismay, our realtor was unable to legally answer my questions about school ratings in some of the cities. All she would say is “Well, the ratings are there for a reason.” I will give as much information as I can about area schools in the detailed city guides since I’m not bound by realtor regulations. We have some great schools and teachers in Flathead County.


Montana Living - Bigfork High School

One thing to keep in mind is that not all HOA’s in the area are created equal. Some are much stricter and will only allow boats and campers in your driveway a few days while others will allow them all Summer. Some enforce rules about pets and barking dogs while others do not. And some don’t allow you to park vehicles on the road while others allow vehicles, semi-trucks, campers, etc. Just be sure to discuss your preferences with your realtor before beginning your search. Also, Montana is unique to other areas we’ve lived previously in that it’s not uncommon to see a really nice home next to a trailer or train tracks. 

One thing to keep in mind is that not all HOA’s in the area are created equal.

I think, because the area was more of a working class mountain town turned tourist vacation destination. According to Wikipedia “Whitefish was originally known as Stumptown due to the abundant amount of timber that had to be cleared to build the town and railroad and because tree stumps were left in the streets throughout downtown. Early residents of the town worked for the railroad and nearby logging industries.” While the stumps have long been removed, the town still has tiny worn down houses reminiscent of the past amid brand new builds and remodeled homes. This is common throughout the valley and I kind of like the hints of what once was. 

After we began looking, I really wanted to move to Montana, almost more than Chad. I was excited to experience outdoor adventures as a family and loved the beauty and recreational opportunities the valley provided. If you feel like Montana is home, push through your fears and inhibitions and make it happen. I don't regret moving here for a moment. It has been everything we dreamt and more.

If you feel like Montana is home, push through your fears and inhibitions and make it happen. I don't regret moving here for a moment. It has been everything we dreamt and more.

Trains, Planes, & Automobiles

If you choose to live in Kalispell, Whitefish, or Columbia Falls there is a good chance you will hear planes, trains, or automobiles from your home. The flights take off from Glacier Park International Airport based on wind direction and circle the valley as needed for the desired flight path. The train line mostly runs from West Glacier through Colombia Falls and Whitefish and up towards Eureka. The line also heads South a bit into Kalispell. 

Things to Consider

Before selling your home and packing your bags, there are a few things to consider about living in Montana. Don't let this list discourage you. I'm assuming you already know the incredible reasons to move here which is why you're reading this. I just want to be sure you consider a few of the common complaints I hear about the area. It always helps to have realistic expectations before making a major life decision. 

Cost of Living

Flathead County Montana is one of the most affordable areas I know of that offers such a large range of recreational opportunities. However, it is pricier than many U.S. cities, and the cost of living here continues to rise. Bestplaces.net has an incredibly helpful cost of living calculator that allows you to enter your current city and income and the city you are considering moving to. It will tell you how much more or less you will need to make for a comparable living experience. 

Montana Living - Cost of Living Calculator

Rent or Buy

If you are able to purchase a home here, I highly recommend doing so over renting. When we were home shopping with our realtor she said she really wanted to get us in a home because values would continue to rise. I kind of thought she was possibly just saying that to make a sale, but she knew what she was talking about, imagine that. Our home value increased 100,000 in 5 years. Of course, there is no guarantee that will continue to be the case, but if you are fairly certain this will be a great fit for you then go for it. Rentals here are difficult to come by and complaints about rental costs being too high are common. 

If you are able to purchase a home here, I highly recommend doing so over renting.

Occupation

Unfortunately, the job market in Flathead Valley has not kept up with the cost of living. The valley has many second home residents that have pushed prices up without the support of high paying jobs to substantiate it. This is a definitely a huge barrier for those desiring to move to the area. Be sure to fully research local employment opportunities for your field of work. Many people in Flathead County work remotely for companies across the U.S. Ask your current employer if you are able to work from home, or start searching online for remote job opportunities.

Montana Living - Volunteer Beach Lakeside, Montana

Climate

Ok, this is a big barrier, second only to employment. Montana Summers are amazing. But, unfortunately they don’t last. Spring and Fall are incredibly short and Winter is very long. Flathead Valley is much better than Eastern Montana (we don’t typically see the bitter winds they do) however, if you don’t love Winter it will be very difficult to live here and not get depressed. 

Do you love the idea of playing in the snow?

Do you love the idea of playing in the snow? Montana has so many amazing opportunities to get outside year round. Downhill skiing, snowboarding, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, dog sledding, sleigh rides, ski joring, sledding, hot tubs, fire pits, and more. Having grown up in Michigan, the adjustment to Montana was an easy one. Michigan gets a fair amount of grey days, snow, ice, and rain but doesn’t have as many opportunities to play in the snow. If all else fails, plan a warm getaway for February or March each year.

Montana Living - Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort

Diversity

Montana is not a very diverse state, however, Flathead County is slowly becoming more diverse. The Whitefish visitor’s bureau works hard to welcome visitors and residents of all nationalities, sexual preferences, and backgrounds. You can view the diversity calculator here. Currently, Montana ranks high for economic diversity, but we have a ways to go in the other categories.

Montana Living - Montana Diversity

Sporting Goods Costs

Most people move to Flathead Valley for the many recreational opportunities the area provides. Just be sure to account for the sporting goods expenses in your planning. If hiking, camping, or snowshoeing are your main forms of recreation your expenses should remain fairly low, however if you plan on mountain biking, hunting, skiing, fishing, boating, backcountry camping, kayaking, paddle boarding, golfing, etc. you will need to budget for those expenses accordingly. However, one great thing about large purchases is that we don't have sales tax in Flathead County (Whitefish does have a tourist tax, I will expound on that in the city guides)!

Montana Living - Whitefish Montana Swift Creek Trail

Shopping & Dining

Flathead Valley has sufficient shopping and dining options, however if you love international cuisine you will be hard pressed to find it here.  And...surprisingly, a good steakhouse is difficult to find as well. Montana Rib and Chop House has amazing steaks, but they have yet to bring them to the valley. As far as shopping is concerned, Flathead Valley has plenty of local clothing shops, TJ Maxx, Target, and a select few stores typically found in a mall. I’m told we will be getting an Old Navy soon. But, if a mall is a necessity Flathead Valley may not be the place for you. The closest decent mall is a two hour drive from the valley to Missoula, but online shopping makes this less of a concern.

Montana Living - Whitefish Montana City Beach

Welcome Home

If you’ve read through this list and still think Montana is truly the last best place on earth then welcome home. You are indeed a great fit for this beautiful state. Be sure to subscribe for notifications as I post city guides for Flathead County. Each area has something unique to offer and the Montana living guides are designed to help you navigate through it all. 

Each area has something unique to offer and the Montana living guides are designed to help you navigate through it all.

If you have any questions feel free to leave them in the comments below. Also, if you live here and I missed something please comment below and let everyone know. Feel free to visit my Youtube channel via the videos tab as well, and start watching my Montana playlists. They will give you a feel for the area and all it has to offer. 

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