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Semigration: Make sure the dream doesn’t turn to dust

Call it semigration, reverse migration, or the Great Move. Either way, thousands of South Africans who’ve got a taste of remote working are grabbing the chance to leave big cities, flocking to greener pastures and wide-open spaces in their droves. But before you pack it all in for the small-town dream, make sure you’ve done your homework.

That’s the warning from Marcél du Toit, CEO of residential property platform Leadhome, who says there’s a growing trend of people who moved to smaller towns or coastal destinations in 2020 to flee the urban sprawl – only to discover that their new lives are not all they were cracked up to be.

“We’ve seen the semigration trend really take off since the onset of Covid-19, as people take the opportunity to move out of the big cities to areas where they can have bigger properties and better lifestyles for less money. But what we’re also seeing is that some people are realising after a few months that living in a new place isn’t all roses and moonlight,” said Du Toit.

He speaks from personal experience, having uprooted his young family from The Big Smoke of Johannesburg earlier this year for a quieter, prettier life in the Western Cape. It’s working for him so far. For others, like consultant Peter V*, moving to a small town in the Karoo hasn’t been all he and his wife thought it would be: while remote work is easy, leaving their support structures behind has been challenging, and they are considering moving to a bigger centre in the new year.

Company director Tafadzwa M* and his family moved to a popular coastal resort town in late 2020. While he loves the lifestyle and waking up to ocean views every day, the novelty has worn off for his wife and teenage daughter, who miss their friends and social routines. The new house is now on the market after barely a year, with a move back to the city imminent.

“It’s fair to say we’ve all learned a few lessons along the way about how important it is to take the emotion and romance out of a move, and being realistic about what semigrating would mean for you and your family,” said Du Toit.

So how do you ensure the semigration dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare? Du Toit has some tips.

Think with your head, not your heart 

“Just because a place is great to holiday in, doesn’t mean it’s great to live in. You have a totally different set of needs for where you live and work, as opposed to where you lie on the beach and drink cocktails,” says Du Toit. “Make a list of your key priorities for your new home, and stick to them. Don’t get side-tracked by a nice view or a romantic dream!”

Consider renting before you buy

“If I could do it all over, I would have rented in the town for a few months first before taking the plunge. What are the people like? How’s the weather? Where’s your nearest supermarket?” says Peter V. “Not all the quirks of small-town life are equally charming.”

Check out the amenities

If you’re going to be doing remote work, a reasonable internet connection is non-negotiable. But take some time to weigh up the broader amenities in the area: how near (or far) are you from schools, hospitals, shopping centres, entertainment and airports? If you have to be driving 90 minutes just to get to a doctor, this is something you should consider, says Du Toit.

Access to friends, family and support structures

Living on the coast, or in a small town, sounds like a dream. “But the reality is that you’re often far away from your friends and family – and no matter how often they say they’re going to come and visit, life often gets in the way. It’s when things go wrong that you realise the value of a support network – and if you don’t have one in your new town, you may struggle,” said Tafadzwa M.

“Semigration is a great opportunity to have a better lifestyle, and to get out of the hustle and bustle of the big city. But make sure you weigh the pros and cons carefully. Make sure your new life will meet all your needs before you commit to the big move,” says Du Toit.