With spring home buying season just around the corner, you may be gearing up for a string of weekends spent perusing open houses. Want to get a jump on your search now? If you haven’t settled on the best neighborhood to buy a home, now’s a good time to do some research.
Choosing the right neighborhood is no small feat, especially if you’re moving to an area that you don’t know well. While a great neighborhood can make your dream home even dreamier, just one bad neighbor or experience could have you thinking twice about how much you love your new digs. So how can you tell if you’re buying a home in your ideal community, or if you’re about to become financially tethered to a situation you’ll soon regret?
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to feel more confident about moving to a new neighborhood. After moving myself this past year, I discovered a few ways to scope out a ‘hood before signing on the dotted line.
#1 Start online
If you’re just starting your search, the Trulia site and app can be a wealth of neighborhood information. The app gives you the lay of the land by showing nearby schools and their ratings, restaurants (with Yelp reviews), grocery stores, cafes and other amenities. Trulia also provides a heat map depicting crime and demographic info like median age, marrieds vs. singles, even percent of neighbors with a college degree.
If you want to know more about the actual neighbors, check out the Dwellr app from the Census Bureau. Not only does it help you narrow down your neighborhood search based on preferences like “city vs. country” and “walk vs. bike to work,” it also has comprehensive data on 40 topics for every neighborhood in the country—for example, how many families with children live in the area, what the typical occupations are, and more.
Another notable site is Neighborhood Scout, which offers a lot of the same demographic info as Dwellr with a few intriguing extras. For example, if you love your friend’s neighborhood, you can enter his address into the Match tool to find “twin neighborhoods” in other areas. Scout also provides helpful guides to steer you toward your dream neighborhood (e.g., “Safest Cities in America”) and away from the bad ones (e.g., “Cities with the Highest Murder Rates”).
#2 Join the club
Once you’ve started to narrow your search, it’s helpful to go beyond the data and hear from real people in the area. Luckily, in today’s world, you can do that without leaving the comfort of your own living room.
Start by searching for online forums to join in your preferred neighborhood—you may get lucky and find something as specific as a Facebook group for “wine lovers of Nob Hill.” You can also check out neighborhood groups on Meetup. Even if you can’t make it to the Meetups in person, reading about the events and perusing the comments can give you a feel for the community vibe.
#3 Take a trip
Online research is helpful, but nothing compares to walking the streets of your would-be ‘hood and talking to the people who live there. If possible, try to visit on different days and times. Talk to the neighbors if you can, and don’t be shy about asking them what they like (and don’t like) about living there.
While you’re there, check out your surroundings. Strollers on porches and toys on the lawn can tip you off to a family-friendly neighborhood, while mountain bikes and muddy SUVs suggest the locals take advantage of the area’s outdoor activities. And keep your eyes peeled for red flags like unkempt yards and peeling paint. If the whole ‘hood needs a remodel, chances are the people there don’t take much pride in being a part of the community.
#4 Try before you buy
If you’re really on the fence about a new neighborhood (or you don’t live close enough for a day trip), your best bet may be a trial run. Rent a place in the area and stay there for a few days to a few weeks (depending on what you can afford). This idea has become so popular that Airbnb now partners with Realtor.com to offer up rentals near the home the user is considering.
You can make a lot of changes to your home, but changing your neighborhood is a lot harder to do. Taking the time to research the best places to live ahead of time can make the difference between a long, happy stay and feeling the need to get out of Dodge before you unpack the last box.
What are some of your favorite ways to scope out a neighborhood before you buy? Any apps, tools or tricks we missed here?