Buying a home without researching (and loving) the neighborhood is a bit like getting married after the first or second date — a serious gamble that pays off at best, and the prelude to a horrible, costly mistake at worst. When the time comes to sink your hard-earned dollars into a down payment on a place to live, you want to be sure that you’re making a decision that benefits you today and up to a decade or more down the road.
And knowing you want to buy in one metro area over another isn’t enough in this era of hot housing markets and internet listings. You need to narrow it down to a specific neighborhood that fits your lifestyle and your household’s future, whether you’re a single artist seeking a studio apartment or a family of four hunting a single-family home.
So how do you make sure that the neighborhood where you’re about to buy is “the one”? By conducting your research, talking to experts, crunching the numbers, and narrowing down your options until you have a good fit. It might not be the height of romance, but it’ll keep you from making a mistake you can’t undo for months.
It’s absolutely fine to choose a home based on life aspirations or goals that you hope to achieve one day. But the joy and agony of being human is that we can imagine ourselves into almost any situation … whether or not it’s realistic for us, in particular, to get there.
So if you’ve got your eye on a two-bedroom that’s right around the corner from your best friend’s CrossFit box, and you enjoy CrossFit, then that might be a great match for you! But if you have to admit to yourself that you prefer yoga to calisthenics, then maybe the place upstairs from the lauded Vinyasa studio is a better bet.
Draw up a fantasy list of everything that you want in a neighborhood — but with a dose of realism in the sense that you’re only including features and amenities that you really want, not things that you think you should want.
If you’ve rented in a few different places in the city, this should help you with your list. Consider what you liked about each place, whether it was the easy access to the best pizza in the district or the fast commute to work.
While you’re at it, think about any dealbreakers that emerged while you were moving around as a renter. What did you not like or appreciate about any of your previous neighborhoods? What annoyed you, and what made you grit your teeth and vow to move as soon as possible, if anything?
Even if you don’t have kids and don’t ever plan to reproduce, it’s a mistake to ignore the schools in your neighborhood of choice. School quality is tied to home prices, whether you like it or not, and you don’t want to eliminate families from the pool of households who might be interested in buying your place when you eventually move on.
You can find general school ratings online, but bear in mind that some providers might not give you the granular information you need — like the individual ratings for elementary, middle, and high schools, and background context that shows how the schools in your area measure against the rest of the city. The more information you have, the better-educated you’ll be when the time comes to make an offer on a home, and that never hurts.
And if you do have kids, then it’s extra-smart to do an additional layer of research when you’re narrowing down your neighborhoods of choice. Test scores only tell part of the story when it comes to any school. Call schools and ask about safety policies, how they manage struggling students, the availability of gifted programs, inclusivity efforts, and any other areas of concern that you might have.
Commerce and traffic
Even if you used to live in the neighborhood (or currently do), don’t assume that you know everything there is to know when it comes to the traffic that flows through and businesses that place their stakes.
Start with the neighborhood council or city league, which can direct you to the appropriate government and Chamber of Commerce entities for the neighborhood, or possibly even answer your questions outright. Ask whether you can obtain a list of current business establishments in the neighborhood, and ask about planned developments and traffic projects.
Not only will this give you a heads-up to any major construction that could be surrounding you in the near future, but it can also serve as a red flag; neighborhoods with little to no plans for development in a metro area that’s mostly booming can signal an area where growth (including home price growth) will probably not keep up with the rest of the metro. And if there aren’t plans to expand that already-congested highway, you’ll want to know that the commute is probably only going to get worse.
You’ll also want to look at public transportation in the neighborhood and how it hooks into the wider city network. Is it relatively easy to get to and from the airport on the train or bus? How about from your prospective neighborhood to significant local landmarks or areas of interest, like arenas, ballparks, music venues, and your workplace? Is there decent public transportation established in your neighborhood? What are the train or subway stops like? How long is the ride to the city center, and how much does it cost?
Just like school ratings, there are a number of platforms that offer crime ratings for different neighborhoods — and that’s a good thing to know when you’re about to buy a home.
It’s always smart to understand exactly what the maps are showing, and that’s especially true for crime ratings. Oftentimes, those ratings are based on crime reports rather than filed charges or convictions secured, so the crime ratings platforms don’t always tell the full story. It’s not a bad idea to check with any friends who live in the area or a real estate professional to get deeper insights into how safe a neighborhood is.
And nobody wants to think about being rushed to the hospital, but you might want to think about it before you buy a home. What’s the local average emergency response time, and which hospital would be the go-to if you had to call for emergency services? Hospitals in any city can range from “top-notch” to “okay.” University hospitals in particular can be good options, as they often carry the latest equipment and have some of the best-trained health care providers.
Spend the night
If you can, it’s wise to try to spend at least one night (and preferably closer to a week) in the neighborhood where you want to buy. Find a vacation rental, if possible, so you’re not cushioned by the “hotel experience” and can spend the week navigating where to shop for groceries, how you’ll get to work, where you can walk the dog, and whether the sounds and smells are welcome or repugnant.
Take walks around the neighborhood to familiarize yourself with where things are and decide whether you love it or loathe it. Maybe being close to a big city park is a dream come true, or maybe you’d rather nestle closer to the nightlife hub. Whatever the case, it’s best to figure it out before you’ve plopped down your (nonrefundable!) earnest money.
And if you can, try to stretch the week for a full seven days so you can experience the neighborhood on weekdays and weekends — after all, you’ll be living there all week, too. Some neighborhoods seem sedate all week long but turn into raucous celebrations for 48 hours every weekend, and you should definitely know that before you move in.
Get the numbers
You might know that home values are rising all over the metro area, but understanding the historical price growth in your specific neighborhood of interest will give you a better idea as to whether your neighborhood is ahead of or behind the typical trajectory — and what your sales opportunities might look like in a few years when you’re looking to move on.
Likewise, you probably want to investigate the rate of homeownership in any neighborhoods you’re considering. Homeowners tend to invest more in their properties than a landlord would, and neighborhoods with high rates of homeownership tend to be up-and-coming or well-established neighborhoods where you’re more likely to see healthy home price growth.
If you’re not sure where to find those numbers (especially reliable ones), talk to a local real estate professional.