Before you even start looking for a place to buy or rent, you need to consider the neighborhood. After all, there's no point in falling in love with a home in an area you can't stand. If you don't do your research when you're buying a TV, you can always return it if you realize it's not what you want. But you can't do the same when you sign a lease or a mortgage and don't do your homework first. If you realize after you move that the neighborhood's not for you, it's too late.
There are so many things to consider when you're searching for the neighborhood of your dreams: architectural style, safety, amenities and your commute, just to name a few. And knowing where to start can be daunting. But there are 10 essentials you simply can't overlook. Keep reading to find out what those are so you can start your search for the perfect neighborhood.
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Most people might not even think about sidewalks when they're looking for the right neighborhood. But they should, because sidewalks actually say a lot about a community. If you're looking for an active place to live, sidewalks can be a good indicator that there are places like parks and other amenities nearby and within walking distance. Sidewalks also make neighborhoods safer. Whether you're walking to the grocery store, the corner restaurant or your neighbor's house, you're less likely to be hit by a car if you're walking on a sidewalk [source: Keen]. The safety aspect alone makes sidewalks extremely desirable if you have pets or children, as you'll likely be walking the neighborhood regularly.
It's easy to focus on the price of buying a home and forget about the additional expenses of living in a certain neighborhood. But those costs should be an important factor in your decision, since they can often be quite high. If you're moving into a country club development or a condo, you may be responsible for pricey homeowner's association fees. And these fees come with rules as well, so you'll want to understand those completely before making a decision. If the association forbids parking motorcycles in your driveway, for example, and you happen to own two of them, then it's definitely something you need to consider.
Property taxes are another significant cost might overlook -- especially if they are escrowed and you pay them as part of your mortgage payment each month. Because property taxes are based on the value of your home, they can increase, which can change your monthly payment if you escrow. Be prepared for increases and make sure your budget can handle the higher payment. On the flip side, in a declining housing market, your taxes can decrease, but that could mean less access to good public services, as well. Parks, libraries and police are usually the first public services cut when the city's budget decreases [source: Levin].
Finally, if you get a great deal on a foreclosure, but it's just within your budget, property taxes could push those payments out of your reach when the market starts to turn around again. The value of your house will increase and so will your property taxes. Just keep that in mind when you're considering foreclosures.
Whether you're a family with young children, a retired couple or a single bachelor, local amenities are important to where you live. Make sure your new neighborhood has everything you're looking for to suit your lifestyle. Families with children might be interested in swim/tennis communities with parks, as well as libraries and ballet and karate lessons nearby. Retired couples, however, may be more attracted to a neighborhood that is devoted to active seniors, or one that is close to family, or even a social club that hosts weekend parties or dances. A young single person with a dog might want a dog park or bike trails within walking distance, plus an active nightlife scene with bars or restaurants close by. You may have to compromise on some of your desires, but just make sure the amenities most important to you are convenient. After all, what could be worse than being single and stuck owning a home in a suburban swim/tennis community filled with families?
How convenient your neighborhood is can affect your happiness -- and your wallet. Is there a shopping center nearby where you can accomplish several errands at once -- pick up your groceries, fill a prescription, find a last-minute hostess gift? Easy access to stores you frequent on a regular basis is key to keeping your stress level to a minimum, as well as avoiding spending too much money on gas. But the biggest convenience factor regarding your neighborhood's location is probably your commute to work. Unless you telecommute every day, the distance you have to drive to and from work is something you need to consider -- especially if you live in a city that is notorious for rush-hour traffic. You might find the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood, but if moving there will double your commute, will it really be worth it?
Certainly you've heard the term "buyer's market." It's a real estate term that's an indicator that home values have dropped, which makes it a great time for someone looking to buy a house. If you buy when the market is down, you'll likely make money on the property when the market starts to recover. So you might think a street lined with foreclosures is a homebuyer's dream, right? Actually, too many foreclosures might be a sign that the neighborhood is in a bad place. When real estate prices fall, so do the property taxes, which in turn affects the city's public services and safety. Foreclosures can also bring down the value of neighboring houses, even if they're in pristine condition. So if you find a neighborhood full of foreclosures, empty houses or even for rent signs, make sure you do your homework to find out whether it's financially stable.
Living in the here and now may be a good outlook on life, but it's not necessarily to best way to find the perfect neighborhood. That's because if you don't check with your local planning office regarding the city's future plans for your area, you may find out too late that you just purchased a home in the middle of a new community college. The planning office can inform you of any future construction projects or road expansions that would affect the neighborhood. You might think a neighborhood is perfect because it's quaint, quiet and private with lots of mature trees, only to find out that a developer is clear cutting the trees behind the house you like to build another subdivision.
Even if your lot isn't directly affected, the city's plans may significantly impact the atmosphere and culture that made you fall in love with the area. It's important to check with your development or homeowner's association about future houses in your area. If you love the fact that a home is on a corner lot without another home on one side, you'll want to know about the plans to expand that side of the development with 50 additional homes. It's likely that will affect your decision.
One reason it's extremely important to visit a neighborhood at several different times of the day before making a decision is to listen to and, believe it or not, smell what's going on there. An area might be perfect on paper, but when you go for a visit you might realize the line of trees in the backyard actually hides a major road. Train tracks, local restaurants and bars, air traffic and medical centers all create noise that might be a menace. Bothersome noises will never go away, and while you might get used to them, it's a gamble. Additionally, these noises will make it harder to sell when you decide it's time to leave. Other unwelcome noises could include your neighbors. Whether it's a couple who fights all of the time, a family with three large dogs or children screaming, you'll want to know about these noises before making your decision. If you visit somewhere on your lunch break, it may seem quiet only because the children are at school and the adults are at work. Visiting at least three different times of the day will give you a better idea of what you're getting yourself into. And while you're listening, don't forget to take a good whiff of the outside air as well. Sewage problems, a stagnant lake or even the corner BBQ joint can create bothersome odors that likely won't go away either.
Finding out how your new neighborhood's crime rate stacks up against your current one or others in the area is a fairly easy task. There are many Web sites that have already done the investigative work for you. Your real estate agent should be able to provide this information as well. If you're on the fence between two neighborhoods, but one has a better crime rate, knowing this information might make your decision easier. If you are completely in love with a neighborhood, but find to your dismay that it has a questionable crime rate, you may want to speak to the local police office for more details. It could be that a small area of the ZIP code is a magnet for crime, but your neighborhood is perfectly safe. If that is the case and you decide to buy, remember this when it's time to sell. Smart potential buyers will have looked up the crime rate as well, which, without the entire story, may deter them from buying your home.
Public and private schools, kindergarten through high school, and even preschools can greatly affect the value of a home. While the subject of schools might be more important to a family with children or a couple hoping to start a family, good schools should be a priority on anyone's list. If you don't have children, it's important to understand how the quality of the school system in that zone will affect the resale of your home. On the other hand, if you're renting and do not have children, good schools may add unnecessary cost to your rent. If you do have children, you'll want to do a bit more research than simply looking up the school zone on a Web site or seeking advice from your real estate agent. Talk to the neighbors or attend a PTA meeting. Many schools give tours, so take advantage of this offer. If you like the schools after one tour, take your children along for a second and see how they like it. Don't forget to ask about the school's sports and other after school activities, as well as academics.
You can find a neighborhood with great reviews, low crime rates, quality schools and popular amenities. But, if it's not the culture you're hoping for, you'll probably end up hating it. Finding your dream neighborhood isn't just about statistics and information, it's about how that place makes you feel. Before you dive in to any of the necessary research, ask if you can see yourself living there. If you are looking for a hip urban redevelopment, you won't be happy in a quiet, family-oriented neighborhood. This means you may have to compromise on some of your criteria. If you live in a city and want to move to an area with an active nightlife, you might need to compromise a bit on some other things. If you crave a place away from it all, surrounded by nature, you might have to give up convenience. The bottom line is you won't be happy in a neighborhood that doesn't fit into your lifestyle. Make sure you find the right neighborhood culture first, and then the other pieces will fall into place.
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- Grace, Suzanne. "Finding the Right Neighborhood." Relocation.com. Feb. 13, 2008. (Feb. 13, 2011)http://www.relocation.com/library/real_estate_guide/buyer_guide/find_neighborhood.html
- Gray, Liz. "How to Choose a Neighborhood." HGTV's Frontdoor. Feb. 25, 2008. (Feb. 13, 2011)http://www.frontdoor.com/Buy/How-To-Choose-A-Neighborhood/1162
- Keen, Judy. "Sidewalks? Not in my front yard." USA Today. June 17, 2007. (Feb. 23, 2011)http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-06-17-sidewalks_N.htm
- Levin, Heather. "How to Analyze a Neighborhood Before Your Buy." USNews.com. Jan. 28, 2011. (Feb. 13, 2011)http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/my-money/2011/01/28/how-to-analyze-a-neighborhood-before-you-buy
- Scher, Carol & Les. "Finding & Buying Your Place in the Country." Dearborn Trade Publishing. 2000. (Feb. 23, 2011)