How to Evaluate a Neighborhood Before You Buy

By Miranda Marquit on 29 May 2013 (Updated 8 July 2014) 2 comments

When it comes to buying a home, the old real estate saying holds true. It's all about "location, location, location."

The neighborhood you live in can make a big difference in whether or not you enjoy your home. You can have a great house, but if you don't like the neighborhood, living there can be unpleasant. (See also: Think You Can Afford More House in the Exurbs? Think Again)

Our next door neighbors are finding this out for themselves. When they moved in three years ago, they liked the house and the large yard. However, they are an older couple, and our neighborhood is full of starter families and starter homes. They were annoyed with all of the young children running around and the frequent family events and get-togethers. They've moved out, and the house hasn't even sold yet.

Before you move in, take the time to evaluate the neighborhood, getting an idea of whether or not you will feel comfortable there. Here are some things to consider as you choose a location.

Schools

This is one of the biggest concerns that many homebuyers have. And why not? Do you want your child to attend a good school? One of the things I like about my son's school is that the test scores are great, and there is a lot of funding for at-risk children. The result is that his class sizes are small for our area, and there is a great enrichment program for him.

Even if you don't have children, or if you decide to homeschool your children, it can still be a plus to have good schools nearby if you are looking for resale value. Chances are that whoever buys the house from you will want to know about the schools.

You can evaluate schools by checking GreatSchools.org, and even by visiting the school. If you are really serious about it, attend a PTA meeting, or meet with the school's principal for a tour. Most of the time, this can be arranged, and you can see what resources are available, as well as what kind of parental support you see in the schools.

If you are unsatisfied with the more traditional school, you can find out about nearby charter schools and private schools.

Strike Up a Conversation

Nothing gives you the feel of a neighborhood like talking to your potential neighbors. If you see someone outside while you are looking at the house, don't be afraid to ask questions. You don't even need to get into an in-depth conversation. Wave and say, "hi," and see if the neighbors wave back.

Spend a few minutes observing the people and talking to a few of the residents. Are there children for your kids to play with? Does it look like the neighbors get along with each other?

You'll get a good idea of what to expect and a feel for whether or not you "belong." While I don't always feel like I belong in my neighborhood, everyone is nice, and my son has friends to play with — one of them is exactly his age and right across the street.

Watch for Negative Signs, Too

Pay attention to signs that the neighborhood could be headed for trouble. While there are one or two houses in my neighborhood that have unkempt yards, most of the homes are neat and well-cared for. The grass is trimmed, flower beds are attractive, and most of the neighbors clear their sidewalks during the winter. These are signs that your potential neighbors take pride in their area and that they care for their things.

Also, watch for an abundance of "For Sale" signs. A lot of For Sale signs can be an indication that the neighborhood is struggling. However, it's not the end of the world if there are a lot of homes for sale. Since I live in a starter neighborhood, there are several homes on the market as families, after five or six years, have decided to upgrade. You can look for indications that the home is well-cared for, even though it is for sale. A foreclosure/real estate owned property is likely to look a little shabby. If there are a lot of foreclosure properties in the neighborhood, that's a real red flag.

What's Nearby?

Don't forget to consider nearby amenities. Consider what you value in your lifestyle. Do you like to walk? If so, look for a neighborhood near shopping and restaurants. My husband likes privacy, so we looked for a neighborhood a little outside of the main part of the town with reasonably large yards and a quieter feel.

Others, though, prefer to be right in the middle of it all, close to dining, shopping, and entertainment. We like to go out enough that we didn't want to go full-on rural. Instead, we are in a semi-rural neighborhood that is about 15 minutes from the things we like to do. It makes sense for us, and, even though I wish there was better public transportation near our house, we're reasonably happy with the location.

You can use tools like WalkScore to get an idea of what is close to your potential neighborhood. WalkScore helps you figure out what's close in terms of schools, activities, dining, shopping, and entertainment. You can see whether it makes sense to bike or walk, and whether there is public transportation nearby.

I am painfully aware that the WalkScore for my neighborhood is 8. That's the one thing I'd change about my neighborhood; I'd like a little better access to amenities.

Bottom Line

Currently, I'm faced with the possibility of moving in the next 12 months or so. I've been thinking about what I want in a neighborhood and how to evaluate what I find. Before you buy, think about the things that would make a neighborhood a pleasant place for you to live. Then, do a little research on communities in your target location.

Finally, take the time to visit neighborhoods in the area. All the data in the world can't replace the actual gut feeling you get when you drive through a neighborhood and receive a first impression about how you might function as part of the community.

Did you research your neighborhood before you bought or rented there? What tools or resources did you use?

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Due to a bunch of life circumstances, I have moved a lot in the past few years. (Each summer since 2009 - but we are breaking the trend this summer!) I have learned that the neighborhood is key to really liking your home. A couple more things that I learned:

1. With your school also check the reputation of the principal. Even if the district is great one bad principal can make or break a school and your experience.
2. Check out the schools PTA - you can learn a lot from there!
3. Drive around the neighborhood at different times of the day and week. Just because you see no kids the first time through does not mean the area is not full of them. Things such as school, and the weather can make the kids stay inside. Also, look for swing sets!
4. If the neighborhood has an association, check out what activities they offer. Often an active association means a good friendly area. No organization or activities and it can be harder to meet and interact with your neighbors.

Happy moving!

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FrugalCat

Don't forget to check out the traffic at ALL times of day. You don't want a house on a shortcut route that every commuter drives through twice a day.