Billings' Overlooked Suburbs: Roundup and Absarokee

Safe Havens in the Big Sky Real Estate Rush

Everyone knows that the Montana real estate market has been exploding since 2020. Bozeman, Big Sky, the Flathead, Missoula, and Billings are booming. Naturally, rising prices and feverish competition in the cities have led many people to the suburbs. Instead of Bozeman, people are looking in Livingston, Three Forks, and even Butte. Billings, of course, has many surrounding towns: Columbus, Laurel, Lockwood, Shepherd, Huntley, Bridger, Joliet, and Acton, among others. Many long-time residents of Billings are now considering selling their homes while the market is hot and moving further out of town, where there is more land, less noise, and less traffic. Curious about the real estate market in the Billings suburbs, I reached out to Kerry Skiles, a long-time friend and a real estate who is opening her own brokerage. She is concentrating her business on two towns: Absarokee and Roundup.

Both communities are roughly forty miles from Billings, but the similarities end there. Roundup is located on the high and dry plains to the north, while Absarokee is in the lush river valley to the west. While many of us are familiar with Absarokee because of its wonderful rivers and the fact that is easily accessed on the Billings-Bozeman corridor, Roundup is a little more out of the way, with fewer natural attractions. Talking to Kerry, I was surprised to learn that the old agricultural community has become quite a destination for people moving here from out of state.

The first thing Kerry mentioned was her “Georgia Boys”: four brothers who moved here from Georgia and purchased properties in roundup with her help, with whom she still maintains a close relationship. They came to Roundup with little money but a lot of ideas and a strong work ethic. Initially they purchased modest properties contract-for-deed; now they are looking at businesses, commercial properties, and larger spreads. The Georgia Boys appear to be typical of a new demographic of Montana immigrants headed to Roundup. “People are coming to this state that sort of feel like their state left them. Most of them aren’t bringing millions of dollars, but they have a nest egg and an idea. They are not coming up there with a lot of money, but they’re figuring out how to make money. They’re survivors and innovators, looking for a new place to call home.”

The Georgia Boys certainly succeeded: they built a profitable business helping fill orders for Blackhawk, a major gun holster and tactical accessory manufacturer in the Bozeman area. One one instance, they helped fill an order for 260,000 units for the French army.

Roundup has attracted a surprisingly diverse population of newcomers; apart from Southern emigres, there are Californians uncomfortable with the direction their home state is heading and Montana veterans who appreciate the peace and quiet of the community.

Despite the town’s relatively isolated location, it does get a surprising amount of traffic, between the surrounding agricultural community, the mine, and people traveling between other communities around Roundup. Though not known for its scenery in the same way as the western and southern parts of Montana, Roundup does have scenic beauty from the Musselshell River and the Bull Mountains. Kerry is optimistic that the town’s growing population will quickly develop its own unique and positive identity.

Roundup’s aspirational and innovative population have developed some interesting architectural designs, most notably the “barn-dominium”: a large steel commercial building with a condo-style home in the back and a large shop. Some of these buildings are surprisingly posh - a number of the shops even have radiant floor heat.

There are plenty of good deals still to be had for real estate bargain hunters in Roundup, but it does come with a price. Water can be a challenge, as finding reliable wells is not guaranteed, and the alkaline water requires significant treatment. Nonetheless, as Kerry says, “Drilling a couple deeps wells isn’t so bad if it’s the place that’s right for you, and you’re buying the land for $400 and acre.”

Absarokee, on the other hand, has plenty of water and is rife with the scenic beauty Montana is famous for. Kerry says, “The Columbus Valley is one of the prettiest places we have, and all of it is ripe for making new communities.” While Roundup’s population are more akin to pioneers, seeking opportunity and solitude, Absarokee’s transplants are more into family life and community. “People go to Absarokee because they want to raise their families there. They’re into family life, local business, and local community. Unlike Red Lodge, they’re not all that interested in tourism.”

Much of Absarokee’s nascent community life centers around developing Main Street. Some choose to have offices or commercial properties in town instead of on their own spreads, so that they can interact with the rest of the community on a regular basis. There is also a financial incentive: developing commercial property on the main street of a thriving community is an excellent long-term investment.

Many Billings residents have considered buying homes or vacation or investment properties in the Stillwater area at one time or another, and Kerry has a piece of advice: “Do it. There is likely to be a long-term recreational land grab in the area, as it is in the Bozeman-Billings corridor, with two river heads and a valley that protects you.” While good deals are still to be had on good-sized parcels, including lucrative riverfront property, Kerry suggests an oft-overlooked alternative: buying smaller homes in town for mixed-use purposes. Using the property as both a VRBO, a vacation property, and a long-term appreciating investment can be rewarding from both a financial and a lifestyle perspective.

If you’re interested in exploring the Absarokee area, Kerry recommends checking out the world-famous Tippet Rise and dining at the Wildflower Cafe.

Whether you’re looking to move outside of town for peace and quiet, to acquire agricultural land for recreation or food security, or pick up a nice vacation or investment property, Roundup and Absarokee are two fascinating options where opportunity still exists in a state currently defined by a real estate gold rush.

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