Choosing a home in an unfamiliar neighborhood can be nerve-racking, but it's almost inevitable when moving to a new city -- or even across town. There's a lot at stake: The wrong decision can cost you money and peace of mind.
Here are some tips to guide you in your search.
Mission: Neighborhood reconnaissance
As with any house hunt, you should first figure out your budget and what you would need, want, and like to have in a house and in a neighborhood. But if you're relocating across the country, your biggest challenge will be doing long-distance recon on your new hometown.
While you can't gain access to private social networks such as Nextdoor until you verify you have an address in a neighborhood, a little cybersleuthing will reveal insights on day-to-day life and concerns in areas you're scouting.
Once you know the general area in which you'd like to live, websites such as City-Data can collect and analyze data from numerous sources to create detailed profiles of U.S. cities, including information from crime rates to weather patterns. Homefacts includes similar information, then drills down further, listing neighborhood statistics such as median home price, homes for sale, and foreclosures.
AreaVibes can help you narrow down a search; after you type a ZIP code or city in which you'd like to live, you can adjust metrics such as amenities, crime, cost of living, and housing prices to compile a list of neighborhoods that match your "livability" needs.
In addition, many regional newspapers or magazines routinely publish online rankings of their best neighborhoods. Listly has lists of five-star New York real estate communities and blue chip Massachusetts real estate communities, so it may be worth a search to see whether there is a similar list for an area in which you're interested.
Speaking of lists, Livability regularly develops city rankings for a range of topics, including small towns, college towns, and overall best places to live.
The Chamber of Commerce in many towns will also provide a guide for people who are relocating. Also, look for news on property taxes in recent years -- falling property taxes likely mean that communities have had to cut back on public services.
If you have children, you'll want to read up on local public schools on GreatSchools.org, as well as determine what day care and after-school activities are nearby. Even if you don't have children, good schools are a major factor in determining home values in a neighborhood.
No neighborhood is perfectly tranquil, but check CrimeReports.com for crime reports and maps to get a sense of where an area falls on the spectrum. You should also visit the National Sex Offender registry and FamilyWatchdog.us, which will identify registered sex offenders living in the area. NeighborhoodScout.com will consolidate crime, school, and real estate data in one report, as well as compile lists on safe cities and neighborhoods with good schools.
Draw on a professional's expertise
If there is one time above all when you'd really benefit from working with a real estate agent with deep knowledge of an area, it's when moving to a new town.
A knowledgable professional should be able to provide recommendations and compile background information on neighborhoods and homes that fit your needs and price range. Come prepared with a neighborhood or neighborhoods you like, and he or she can give you more information or suggest similar alternatives.
Get down with the locals
Once you've done the research and found a neighborhood you like, drive by several times during the day and at night. Look for the following:
- Are there many "for sale" signs on lawns?
- Are there any abandoned or boarded-up houses in the vicinity?
- Is there a lot of trash on the sidewalks?
- Is the neighborhood close to a shopping or business area?
- How well are neighborhood parks maintained?
- Is street parking restricted after school and during rush hour?
Also try to attend a few open houses in your neighborhood of choice. It's a good way to get a feel for local property values, and to walk around the area. If you see residents out and about, try to talk to them to get their perspective on the community.
If you have time, try to get a drink in a local bar or a cafe and talk to people there. Apps like Meetup and AroundMe will help you connect with people in a town that have similar interests, as well as help you find the nearest hot spot.
These will be your potential neighbors, so they will provide valuable impressions on whether you'll be pleased with where you eventually live.
Updated from an earlier version by Herbert J. Cohen
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