Buying a home can feel like the most intense research project ever – to make a smart buy, you’ve got to get educated about mortgages, learn how to read a contract, do a deep dive into property condition issues or homeowner’s associations and pay attention to what’s going on in the economic news and the real estate market. But there’s at least one more area wise buyers don’t neglect: neighborhood research.We know, at a gut level, what kind of neighborhoods we like – tree-lined streets, convenient shops, etc. and so forth. But what specific details should you investigate before you buy or move into an area? Here are 5 items you definitely need-to-know before you move into a neighborhood:
1. Details on Shady Dealings. Most of us think we know which sides of the railroad tracks, so to speak, have high crime rates and which are supposedly safe. But before you buy a home or move into a neighborhood, it behooves you to actually do the research and see whether or not your beliefs are accurate. Check out the Megan’s Law databases to see where registered sex offenders may live, especially if you have young children or other reasons to be particularly worried. Google your address, which might pop up details such as whether your intended home has ever been a meth lab, among other things. And, whatever you do, don’t forget to tap into Trulia’s new Crime Maps – in a number of metro areas (which will be constantly expanding), you can view uber-detailed (and sometimes surprising!) crime data that is uber-relevant to you. If you’re trying to decide between two homes in different parts of town, you can even toggle back and forth between the neighborhoods to compare them! For example, some neighborhoods have a spike in car break-ins after people leave for work. Or maybe one side of your street-to-be has a significantly higher rate of violent crimes than the other. That’s the kind of thing you should find out before you move in, don’tcha think?
2. How Recession-Resistant it is. Let’s face facts: some neighborhoods, cities and states have fared better than others over the course of the recession. An area’s proximity to job opportunities, saturation with troubled subprime loans and the amount of housing supply (vs. demand) all have something to do with whether prices plummeted or have held up over the last few years. Sometimes, a neighborhood’s recession-proofness (or -proneness) is obvious: if the street on which you’re house hunting is riddled with ‘For Sale’ signs (and foreclosure riders on top of them), or you know for a fact that the home you’re buying is a short sale for which the sellers paid double your price just 5 years ago, you might be in an area that has been hard hit. Also, if your neighborhood has a sky-high rate of price reductions or it is much less expensive to buy than to rent a home in your area, these are other indicators that the recession might have hit your district pretty hard. The fact of the matter is, some of the hardest hit neighborhoods are where the best deals are to be found, so I’m not necessarily suggesting that you shy away from buying in such an area. But do know that the harder hit areas might take longer to see an uptick in home values, too, so the harder hit your neighborhood was by the real estate recession, the longer you should plan on staying put before you buy, to make sure you don’t end up needing to sell and stuck in an upside-down home. While a 5 to 7 year plan might make sense in an area where the real estate market has been pretty robust over the last few years, you might want to be okay with planning to hold your home upwards of 10 years before buying in a foreclosure-riddled area (and you might also want to make absolutely sure you’re very happy with the deal you’re getting). On the flip side, the more recession-resistant your area has been, the more likely you are to encounter sellers with less flexibility on pricing or even, gasp!, multiple offers!
3. The Neighborhood’s Flavor. Is the area you’re considering a hot spot for outdoor adventures and family events at the park, or chi chi restaurants and wine tastings at the museum? Find out by pulling up some listings on Trulia and scrolling down the see how others who have lived in the area have rated and reviewed it. Also, take a look at NabeWise – it’s only available for about 10 large cities right now, but it’s got a super useful function where you can search by city and what’s important to you (like being in a trendy neighborhood, or one that’s got ample public transportation) and it’ll surface neighborhoods which might be a good fit for your values.Neighborhoods are even ranked based on prestige and how beautiful residents are (the latter of which I find fascinating – but more as a measure of where the raters’ heads are at than of anything you must include in your neighborhood fit equation!).
4. Where are the hot spots? Before you buy or move into an area, equip yourself with a knowledge of where all the stores, farmer’s markets, parks, restaurants and other hot spots your family will want to use are located vis-a-vis your home-to-be. (Hint: your local real estate agent is a fabulous source for this kind of information – they are especially gifted at knowing where the good food and shopping is!) Your Trulia Mobile App will alert you to nearby haunts that have Yelp! reviews; also, your neighbors-to-be can be a great source of this sort of information – knock on doors and ask for their recommendations. It also makes sense to search the web for the various sorts of things your family is into, and your new neighborhood’s name. An internet search for running trails in my neighborhood is how I found out my house was just a couple of blocks away from a largely hidden lake we now visit regularly. Then, drive around and see what you can see – or find someone to drive for you. Once, when I moved to a new town, I marched myself onto a city bus, sat behind the driver, told them I was new in town and asked them to point out things they thought I needed to know. I got an hour long tour through three neighboring towns – for $1.25!
5. What the neighborhood looks and feels like at different times of day/different days of the week. Have you ever visited a Sunday afternoon open house when the sun was shining, birds were singing, and charming neighborhood rugrats were rolling their hoops up the street? (Okay – that was a century or two ago, but you get the gist.) Then, you come back a couple of weeks later for your inspections at dusk and find those same rugrats (or their parents!) spraying graffiti all over “your” garage, the neighbors’ underpants flapping on the line in the front yard and the other neighbors’ music blaring? File that under disappointing. The nature of a neighborhoods changes – sometimes dramatically – before and after the sun goes down. Also, if you visit a home during the week or when it’s cold and rainy out, the street will undoubtedly be busier and noisier – more reflective of the extremes you should be aware of – on the weekend or when the weather is grand.
So, before you buy, go see the place in sunlight and after dark, during the week and on the weekend. And, again, there’s nothing wrong with knocking on the neighbors’ doors, telling them you’re thinking of buying, and seeing what kind of insider information you can glean from them!