What’s Good in the Hood? Six Ways to Check Your Neighborhood’s Vibe

BY Cathie Ericson

When Bradley Shaw decided to move to Coronado, California last year, he was drawn to the laid-back beach lifestyle the area offered. But after he sold his old house and needed to find a new place quickly, he blew off some of the research he planned to do and ended up in a neighborhood he admits isn’t exactly what he wanted.

The house is on a busier street than he would have liked, and he’s found that the demographics of the area, including a high military population, lead to a concentration of rental homes and a consistent turnover of neighbors.

The house itself…still awesome. The rest of his environment…less than ideal.

There’s much more that factors into the enjoyment of your home than the structure itself. In fact, “neighborhood quality” is more important than home size for more than three-quarters of home buyers surveyed by the National Association of REALTORS®.

Here are six questions to consider about your new home’s environment.

1. How safe is the area?

This is probably the first item on your neighborhood fact-finding list, and with good reason. Crime stats can be found a variety of places online including NeighborhoodScout, which has a section for crime rates; and AreaVibes, which computes a Livability Score that includes crime rates.

To find out if there are nearby sex offenders, check databases at the U.S. Department of Justice National Sex Offender Public Website or Family Watchdog. You can also check with your local police department and consult the online community paper, which often prints the police blotter.

2. How awesome are the schools?

Websites such as SchoolDigger and GreatSchools can be a good starting point for assessing your local schools, and they are important to consult since everyone else (read: the next buyers) will be factoring those numbers into their ranking, too. But don’t rely on those numbers completely.

Call your local schools and ask them to send you a copy of the most recent Parent Teacher Organization/Association newsletter. That will give you a good feeling for what goes on in the school community.

Tempted to blow off school research because you don’t have kids? Don’t. The school district is still critical, says Ali Wenzke, a suburban Chicago homeowner who has moved almost a dozen times for her and her husband’s work. “I was pregnant when we bought our first home, and therefore was all over the parks and nearby zoo. We didn’t even consider our school district because kindergarten was years away, and the local high school certainly wasn’t on our radar.” Her story had a happy ending: She had unwittingly bought in a great school district which fast-tracked the resale, but warns it could have easily gone the other way.

3. Can you walk this way?

A new factor popping up is walkability: A NAR survey found that nearly half of people surveyed would choose a community with a smaller yard if it had an easy walk to amenities over a place with a larger yard that required more driving.

“In a city like Los Angeles where people spend so much time in their cars, walkability is a growing factor in many buyers’ decision-making process,” says Realtor® Amber Dolle with John Aaroe Group in Los Angeles. Visit the Walk Score to find ratings for specific houses — the higher the rating, the more walkable the neighborhood is, meaning the easier it is to accomplish routine errands on foot.

4. What is the neighborhood like when there’s not an open house?

Two p.m. on a Saturday is just one tiny sliver in the weekly rhythm of a neighborhood. Nothing beats a drive by on a Friday night to see how wild your neighbors get or just a walk around on a random Wednesday afternoon, says Todd Hutcheson, owner of ISellHomes.com in Orlando, Florida.

Check out if people are friendly when you stroll by; if kids are out playing; and if the streets are well-lit. And be on the look-out for deal breakers, whether it’s people parking their cars on the lawn or a pack of barking dogs next door, Hutcheson says, which can torpedo your peace and your home value.

And of course, you can always do a little door knocking to check with the neighbors, suggests Dolle, who often accompanies clients on a fact-finding mission. Find out if there are known crime problems or nuisances straight from the people who deal with them every day.

It’s also smart to try your commute during rush hour, just to make sure there are no unpleasant traffic surprises.

5. What’s on the horizon for your neighborhood?

Is your neighborhood slated for a three-lane highway, a new shopping mall, or scores of new tract homes? For better or worse, they will affect your home value, so check with the local planning and economic development departments. Development might just increase traffic woes and density, but it could also increases economic vitality, with upgraded buildings, parks and sidewalks, and exciting new merchants coming to town.

6. What are your neighbors ranting and raving about?

Wish you could be a fly on the wall to find out what’s really important to your neighbors? Try hanging out on Nextdoor or the local Facebook Group. “These types of apps and sites can be great for discovering activity in the area, from upcoming events to crime,” says Aaron Norris with real estate investment firm The Norris Group in Riverside, Calif.

On his own community-run site, he finds that participants share everything from information about traffic incidents to funny stories, weather, nonprofit news, and lost dog posts. “It’s amazing how active these self-regulated groups are,” he says, noting that some are inclined to be positive and informative, while others attract squeaky wheels who have a lot of spare time on their hands to complain. Take the chatter with a grain of salt, but public social snooping can still provide an invaluable peek into what’s on your neighbors’ minds.

And, don’t hesitate to take it a step further. Many sites will let newbies ask questions about a community they are considering.