What's the one thing you should do before choosing a neighborhood?

There aren't any perfect neighborhoods out there, but if you do your homework first, you can find one that's perfect for you. See more real estate pictures.
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Choosing a neighborhood is a huge decision. Whether you're renting or buying, you sign a contractual agreement to stay there, even if later you decide you don't like the area. If you're renting, you could be lucky enough to get a six-month lease, but most are for a year or two. That's a long time to come home everyday to a neighbor's barking dog that drives you crazy or a funny odor from the lake down the street. If you're buying, you're potentially looking at five years until it makes financial sense for you to move away from those odd neighbors who talk too much. So what's the one thing you should do before choosing a neighborhood to ensure it's right? You have to do your homework, that's what. There aren't any perfect neighborhoods out there, but if you do your homework first, you can find one that's perfect for you.

Among the many criteria to consider are crime rate, school zone and local amenities. However, the most important thing is to find the right neighborhood culture to fit your lifestyle, so the first part of your homework is to make a list of what's important to you. Do you have kids? Are you trying to cut down your commute? Will this be the move that finally allows you to be in the trendy section of downtown or near the beach or golf course? Determine what is most important to you -- the one thing that will make or break your happiness with the neighborhood. If that one thing doesn't immediately pop into your head, consider if you want an old or new area. Some neighborhoods are urban redevelopments, where old buildings have been given new life. Consider certain amenities you can't live without. If you have a medical condition, your one priority might be close proximity to your doctor or a hospital. If you're a health nut, you might want to be close to an organic foods store or bike trails.

But don't just think about the things you want -- think about the things you don't want. If you work from home, you might want a neighborhood without a lot of traffic or other noises, or one with a great coffee shop within walking distance where you can work with other telecommuters. If you're an older, private couple, your one consideration might be to live in an area where there aren't a lot of college kids hanging out. Once you figure out what you want in a neighborhood, it's time to do some research. Find out what you should be looking for next.

Research and Compare

Thanks to the Internet, you can learn all kinds of information about an area before you ever set foot there. First, search for the exact type of neighborhood you're looking for. Next narrow the results using your list of amenities that are important to your lifestyle. If you're having trouble finding too few (or too many) areas to visit, you might want to talk to a real estate agent or ask friends and coworkers for neighborhoods they recommend. People are usually happy to tell you what they love about their neighborhood, but make sure you ask them to consider what they might change if they could. After identifying the areas of town you're interested in, put each one in a spreadsheet to make comparisons easy.

Continue researching each area, and compare them in an "apples to apples" manner. Even if you don't have children, the quality of schools in an area is an important feature, especially if you're buying a home. Crime rate is always important. You'll want to research to find out if there are homeowner's associations or any other neighborhood rules to follow. Some of these may be a deal breakers. For example, some home developments do not allow motorcycles inside their gates. If you're a bike fanatic, this wouldn't be the neighborhood for you. Money is another thing to consider. Is the neighborhood in your price range? Don't just focus on the rent or mortgage payment; there are additional costs to consider as well. Are there any public service or recycling fees? How do the utility prices in the area compare to what you're paying now? If you're buying, add up the real estate taxes and any homeowner's association fees. Finally, consider the neighborhood's location within your city. Is it convenient to your job, and close to amenities and necessities that are important to you, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, parks and museums?

While all of these criteria are important, you should rate them on a scale to determine how important each is to you. Remember, you'll probably have to compromise to ensure you find the right neighborhood for your lifestyle. We'll discuss how to narrow down your search even further on the next page.

Check It Out in Person

To get a real sense of a neighborhood, it's important to visit it in person.
To get a real sense of a neighborhood, it's important to visit it in person.
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Once you've narrowed down your search, it is essential to check out your top five neighborhoods in person. If you live in another state, make a trip or find a trusted contact to do this research for you. There is so much you can learn about a neighborhood in person that isn't clear from an Internet search or an interview with a real estate agent. To get a real sense of what living in a neighborhood would be like, it's important to visit at different times of day during the week and on a weekend. If you only visit an area on a weekday when children are in school and adults are at work, you won't get a complete understanding of how the neighborhood functions. Multiple visits will give you the entire picture on noise, traffic and how active the residents are.

Also be wary of signs that a neighborhood is in decline, including empty houses or houses in disrepair, too many for sale or for rent signs, vandalism, vicious or loose dogs, and broken down cars. Another warning sign that requires more research is if you notice a funny smell. Even if you only notice it on one of your many visits, it's important to understand where the odor is coming from to determine if it's something you should be concerned about.

On each of your visits, try to talk to at least one person. Ask people what they like most about the areas, as well as what they would change about their neighborhoods. Take note if there are differing opinions from residents on the same street and try to figure out why. If you've noticed any warning signs, this is a great opportunity to find out more about them. The time you spend talking to your potential new neighbors will help you get to know them as well. Do they seem friendly or have unusual quirks? Make sure you can see yourself living next to everyone you interview.

Even though it requires a lot of upfront work, doing your homework gives you a much greater chance of choosing a neighborhood that you will love for years to come. Now all you have to do is find the right home, sign the papers and move in.

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Sources

  • "12 Kinds of Neighborhoods." HGTV's Frontdoor. Nov. 15, 2007. (Feb. 13, 2011)http://www.frontdoor.com/Neighborhood/12-Kinds-of-Neighborhoods/373
  • 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. "5 steps to finding a place where you belong." HGTV's Frontdoor. Feb. 25, 2009. (Feb. 13, 2011)http://www.frontdoor.com/Buy/How-To-Choose-A-Neighborhood/1162
  • "How to Choose a Neighborhood." REALTOR.com. (Feb. 13, 2011)http://new.realtor.com/basics/buy/chooseoffer/chooseneighborhood.asp
  • 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
  • Williams, Geoff. "5 Types of Neighbors and How to Handle Them." HGTV's Frontdoor. Sept. 22, 2008. (Feb. 13, 2011)http://www.frontdoor.com/Neighborhood/5-Types-of-Neighbors-and-How-to-Handle-Them/2369