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How to research a neighborhood
(REUTERS) -- That inviting colonial with the perfectly manicured lawn on the cul-de-sac could be your dream home. But if you don't examine the neighborhood beforehand, you could end up on a block full of Desperate Housewives or with a slacker neighbor like Seinfeld's Cramer who barges in all the time.
"A home is the most expensive purchase for most Americans and fraught with so much risk, so it's really in a person's best interest to broaden their search to neighborhoods first before looking at home listings," says Andrew Schiller, founder and CEO of Rhode Island-based Location, Inc., which runs www.NeighborhoodScout.com, a provider of vital data about neighborhoods.
"The risk you have when buying a house is not whether it needs a new roof," Schiller explains. "The risk is where the house is located."
Along with checking the school system, crime rates, and home resale values, make sure the neighborhood matches your lifestyle and stage in life. For example, if you're a devoted outdoors runner, you'll want a spacious park with a path nearby. If you're expecting a baby, you might want a larger home with a fenced yard; a family-friendly community that hosts events, recreation, and activities for kids; and highly-regarded schools that you can afford. "There is no one best place for everybody," Schiller says. "It depends on where you are in your life."
Collecting data about neighborhoods can help you decide which one matches your needs, and ultimately save a lot of time. In education, check the students per classroom relative to other schools in the state and the national average. If the class size is small, it could mean there are a lot of special needs students that require more teachers, Schiller says, and you might pay higher taxes to pay for them. If the class size is larger, the school may be underfunded, or doesn't have a lot of special needs children.
For crime, look at the number of crimes per 1,000 residents and how that ranks in the area, as well as the chance that you'll be a victim of crime during one year (Neighborhood Scout Reports provides these stats). "Any neighborhood can have a robbery or murder," says Schiller. "You want to know if it happens every year."
Here are a few sites to get information:
Neighborhood Scout Reports: www.NeighborhoodScoutReports.com For $19.99, a comprehensive report provides nearly 300 data points covering lifestyle (including demographics of neighbors and walkability), house values and appreciation rates, education (class size, how taxes are spent, and public school test scores) and crime.
Homefair: Homefair offers free city profile reports, which contain information about demographics, incomes, education, climate and crime (data is from Onboard Informatics, which crunches data for many publications' various "Best Places to Live" lists.)
Realtor.com: The National Association of Realtors' site provides home listings and home values.
Google Maps: here Google Maps gives a view of street and homes that may interest you. Move the map around to view the surrounding areas.
Once you've narrowed your search, drive around the neighborhood and ask up to three people on the street if they enjoy living there, Schiller says. You also need to visit that neighborhood at different times of the day to see how quiet it is, he says. Also inquire about where they grocery shop, and how far it is. Then go to the grocery store and determine if it meets your needs and standards, recommends Schiller. You can also visit local shops and restaurants to get a lay of the land.
While it may take some effort to sort through the stats, you'll sleep better in your new home when you're sure you picked the right neighborhood.
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