How To Learn About A Neighborhood – Before You Move In
Miranda CraceJune 14, 2019
If you’re in the market for a home, you’ve probably spent a lot of time going over details: the number of bathrooms, the state of the flooring, the square footage of the backyard.
But many would-be homeowners spend so much time stressing over these details that they fail to consider what’s happening on the other side of the fence.
Homes don’t exist in a vacuum, and you shouldn’t shop for your next one like they do. The neighborhood your house is in can make or break your experience as a homeowner.
To ensure you’re not just getting into the home of your dreams, but into a community you’ll love, you need to do some sleuthing and get a feel for what life is like beyond your quarter-acre.
Learn The Basics
We’ll get into how to match a neighborhood to your personal preferences in a minute, but first, here are some basic location-based factors that every house-hunter should take into account.
Property Values, Taxes And Insurance
Talk to your real estate agent about a prospective neighborhood’s home values and how the prices for any homes you’re considering compare to those of neighboring homes. This is useful information to learn ahead of time, as your home’s value will be affected by the value of other homes in your neighborhood.
Look into what your tax and insurance costs for that area would look like, as well as any homeowners association (HOA) fees you may have to pay.
Insurance costs vary, depending on the area you’re in. For example, you’ll need to know if the neighborhood is in a designated flood zone. If it is, your mortgage lender will likely require that you purchase flood insurance.
Something else you should pay attention to is the neighborhood’s general noise level and proximity to other possible nuisances.
Unless you move out into the middle of nowhere, you’re going to deal with some noise. However, if you value quiet evenings, you might want to avoid moving into a neighborhood that sits at the edge of the expressway, where you’ll hear loud road noise all day and night. If your prospective home is next to a shooting range or has a train that runs through the backyard, you should consider whether you can live with that.
Think about that house you were eyeing, specifically the front yard that would be perfect for a cute little vegetable garden. Wouldn’t it be a shame if you found out you weren’t allowed to have a vegetable garden in your front yard only after you signed all the papers and were handed the keys?
HOA rules can be a pain in the freedom-loving-homeowner’s neck. While they’re generally intended to help maintain property values and take care of shared community property, there are plenty of horror stories of power-hungry HOAs run amok, from the one that sued a family for building a swing set in their yard for their children to the HOA that bankrupted itself after a $400,000 legal battle over a political yard sign that was 4 inches too tall.
Before agreeing to purchase a home in an HOA community, you should ask to see the HOA’s covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs). These are the rules that govern the neighborhood. If you don’t follow these rules, the HOA has the power to place a lien on your home and even foreclose on it.
HOAs aren’t all bad, of course, and most homeowners in HOA communities have few complaints or even greatly benefit from the amenities provided. But because HOAs do hold power over the neighborhood, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into.
Figure Out What’s Important To You
People are often looking for two big things when they’re thinking about moving into an area: good schools and low crime rates.
But what if you don’t have kids or don’t find the crime rate to be a disqualifying factor?
There’s a reason people tout these two factors – they tend to signify stable property values. But these shouldn’t be the only factors you consider. To find your perfect neighborhood fit, you want a place that has the right vibe. However, the “right vibe” is going to be different for everyone. To help quantify that, here are some aspects you might want to consider.
That property values correlate with crime rates makes sense. People want to feel safe in their homes, so they’re less likely to buy a home in a neighborhood where they feel their safety may be compromised.
When looking at crime rates for a specific area, it can be helpful to look at the local rates compared to overall U.S. crime rates. This helps keep the numbers in context.
If you like being able to walk home from the club or prefer a short drive to the grocery store, be sure to factor that into your home search.
Essentially, you want to find out how convenient it is to live in that neighborhood.
Is it close to a town center, with lots of restaurants and convenience stores? Or will you have to drive at least 15 minutes to reach any semblance of civilization? For some, the former is an absolute necessity, while others prefer the latter. It’s all about what works best for you.
If you rely on public transportation, you may want a place that’s closer to the bus stop or train station. If you drive to work every day, you should consider an area’s proximity to your job or how easy it would be to get to the expressway from your house.
You should also take a look at how close the nearest hospital is, as well as other necessities such as doctors’ offices, veterinarians and auto repair shops.
If you have school-age children, it’s obvious why you might consider shopping for a home in a highly rated school district. However, even if you don’t have a kid, buying a home there can prove to be a good investment.
Because home values tend to remain strong in highly rated districts, they can help your home retain value better even when the market is rough. Plus, because buyers tend to flock to homes in such districts, you’ll likely have an easier time making a profit if you decide to sell your home down the road.
Understanding the dynamic of the neighborhood can be important. Everyone wants to feel welcome, and doing some research can help you find out if a neighborhood would be a good match for you.
Finding a community in which others have similar experiences and lifestyles can bring a certain amount of comfort, but being around people with different cultural values and perspectives can also make for a richer life experience.
Marriage and age demographics can make a difference in your neighborhood experience as well. If you’re young and unmarried, you might want to be in a community that has other young, single people. On the flip side, a family with children might prefer a neighborhood with many other families with children.
These statistics might not matter to you – who says a young, single person can’t enjoy living next to an older, retired couple? – but if they do, you can take a look at the local data to help inform your decisions.
Do Your Research
Now that you’ve figured out what matters to you when it comes to a prospective neighborhood, you need to learn about those aspects of the areas you’re considering buying in.
It’s time to do some research.
While you’ll be able to glean a lot of information from your real estate agent about the neighborhood basics, you’ll likely need to do some of your own sleuthing if you want to learn everything there is to know.
Look At The Data
If you want to read up on crime statistics for your area, your best source of information will likely be the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. You can find data specific to your city or town using the most recent “Crime in the United States” report.
While neighborhood-specific data can be more difficult to come by, some metropolitan areas have neighborhood newspapers that can be a good source of information. If the paper features a police blotter, you can get an idea of what typically goes on in a specific area.
Census data may also be of some help for demographic information, but as with the FBI data, it will be difficult to get the hyper-local information you’re looking for. To really get a feel for a neighborhood, you’ll need to get creative with your research tactics.
Check Out Online Communities
The internet is a great place for people with similar backgrounds to come together to discuss their shared interests, which means it’s also a good place for you to listen in on those conversations and get a feel for the things they’re discussing.
Do a quick search for your chosen area or neighborhood and see if there are any hyper-local online forums that community members participate in. Sites like Facebook or Reddit may have groups specifically for the neighborhood you’re interested in. Taking some time to lurk on their forums can give you an idea of the vibe and goings-on in that community.
You can also search around and see if anyone runs a blog or online newspaper for the area. This can give you insight into neighborhood-specific issues and events.
Stake It Out
The best research tools you have at your disposal are your own two feet. When you’re house-hunting, don’t just tour the home. Walk down the street and get a feel for the neighborhood. If you happen to catch any of the neighbors outside, ask them how they like living in the area. They’ll be your best resource on what life is like there. They might even have some intel on the property you’re considering – like why it’s on the market – that you otherwise wouldn’t find out.
In addition to talking to the neighbors, you should drive through the neighborhood more than once, at different times. Check out what it looks like at night or how active it gets during a weekend afternoon. Having multiple perspectives will give you a more holistic picture of the area.
Use Online Tools
An online resource that pulls together all this information in an easy-to-search tool, like our home search tool, will be your best friend.
With the search tool, you can search for neighborhood information by address and not only learn about the features of the home itself but about the neighborhood and town it’s in. You can see the ratings of all the nearby schools, find out what types of families live in the area and get a list of popular nearby places.
Another online tool that will be your friend during your home search? Google Maps. You can use this to find out what amenities, restaurants and stores are in the area and see how long of a walk or drive it is to reach those places. You can also route your commute and see what your drive to work would look like.
If you have school-age children and are trying to get a read on an area’s schools, there are many websites that provide a breakdown of this information, with ratings and reviews on everything from college readiness to how well schools serve the needs of students from varying backgrounds.
You can also often find a place on these sites for students and parents to leave their own reviews. This can give you a more thorough understanding of what to expect from a specific school or district, and whether you think it would be a good match for your kid.
Find A Good Fit For You
Even the most discerning neighborhood researcher will likely still end up with at least a few surprises – some pleasant, some maybe less so. But by using the information available to you and learning what you can, you’re greatly increasing the odds that you end up in a neighborhood that you’re satisfied with.
If you’ve found the perfect home, it can be tempting to become laser-focused on getting the house that you want and disregarding everything else. But living in a neighborhood that suits you and makes your life easier is an underrated benefit of homeownership.
When you’re making that hundredth trip to the grocery store that’s only 5 minutes away, enjoying your HOA-approved vegetable garden or making friends at the annual block party, you’ll be glad you took the time to make sure the neighborhood, not just the house, was a good fit for you.