Buyers spend months combing through real-estate listing sites looking for that perfect home: the dwelling that fits their budget and their dreams of a better lifestyle.
But how much time do they spend looking at the area around it? Not nearly enough, says Andrew Schiller, founder and CEO of NeighborhoodScout.
"Most people focus on the house … and only secondarily look at the neighborhood. It should actually be the reverse," Schiller says.
You can have a glorious house, Schiller says, but you will find your lifestyle suffering if the neighborhood isn't a good fit. The people, amenities, schools and a host of other factors are what help determine whether you're living the American dream or just living.
Here are the five biggest mistakes people make in choosing a neighborhood, as well as some tips on scoping out your next community.
1. They think short-term.
Often, moves happen because people are in a transition of some sort — divorcing, downsizing or getting ready to start a family, says Deena Willis, associate broker/owner of Re/Max Property Concierge in South Pasadena, Calif. Although their circumstances are changing rapidly, she says, people tend to buy from their old mindset and not think about how their life is changing.
"They are conflicted and may still want to be very urban when a sidewalk neighborhood with kiddies all around would suit their new lifestyle much better," Willis says. That amazing hillside view home might not look so appealing after you've lugged a couple of giant boxes of diapers up the stairs, she says.
Similarly, people moving after divorce or the death of a spouse may look for a safe suburban area and fail to consider the risk of social isolation in a neighborhood without nearby amenities such as coffee shops, bookstores and restaurants, Schiller says.
"People often think they are more 'Leave it to Beaver' than they really are," he says.
Solution: Get advice tailored to your situation.
Most people start their neighborhood research by talking to friends and co-workers. Although it's helpful to solicit advice or suggestions on neighborhoods, consider the source, says Diann Patton, Coldwell Banker's consumer real-estate specialist.
That friend without kids might not have a good grasp of the schools or children's activities in his neighborhood and think it's a fine place to raise a family. Likewise, that co-worker with young children might not have a good handle on the arts scene and places for young professionals to mingle after work. Talk to someone who's in your situation — or the situation in which you will soon find yourself.
Do your own online research. Schiller's website, NeighborhoodScout, allows you to find communities by lifestyle, such as "young families," "hip and trendy," "Spanish-speaking neighborhoods" or "young singles, upwardly mobile."
Greatschools.org lets you see how students at the neighborhood schools fared on standardized tests.
City-data.com allows you to search cities by demographics such as age, median income and education levels, as well as a whole host of other factors.
2. They assume and don't verify.
People often move into areas that they hear have low crime rates, good schools and low taxes, etc., without bothering to verify these facts themselves or see for themselves.
They don't check with that sterling school district to see if a subdivision or community falls within its boundaries, which can cut across city lines, Willis says.
Likewise, they don't independently verify that a certain neighborhood is outside of proposed freeway construction, flood plain or landslide areas. They don't check records to see if an area is really low in all types of crime and free of special taxes or restrictions.
Then, when construction begins, their car is vandalized or they
Solution: Don't assume. Get it in writing.
Make sure your agent knows your needs and concerns. Have her check county and transportation-department records and get key documents about community restrictions and financial standing.
Check out crime statistics and talk to local police about recent trends in crime in that area, agents say.
And if you want to know what a "good school" looks like in the area, go out and visit one, take a tour and talk to its principal, says Todd Hetherington, CEO of Century 21 New Millennium in the Washington, D.C., metro area. You may find the school overrated.
3. They underestimate or ignore the commute.
Sure, that neighborhood with the tree-lined streets and charming Victorian houses looks great. But how much will you get to soak up this ambience if you're leaving the house at the crack of dawn and coming home late?
And how much money will you have left over to spend on the weekend if the gas pump is draining your wallet?
While some people buy into a bad commute simply because they adore a neighborhood, others do it unknowingly, agents say. They come to look at a house in the middle of the day and think, "This drive isn't so far." Then, when they move in and make the drive at rush hour, it turns out to take twice as long.
Solution: Try out the commute at rush hour.
Drive to your work at the same time you would in the morning and drive back when your workday ends. How long did it take you? If it's approaching an hour, you may want to reconsider. According a recent study by Umea University in Sweden, couples with one partner who commutes longer than 45 minutes are 40% more likely to divorce. Don't risk it.
4. They don't check out the neighbors.
The people who surround you play a large role in shaping your lifestyle. Yet many homebuyers give only a cursory glance to the people walking the streets of the community they are considering.
Choose wisely and you increase your chances of potlucks, pleasant conversations and a peaceful night's sleep. The wrong fit can lead to isolation, tension and tears.
"There are not bad neighborhoods," Schiller says, "just bad matches."
For instance, a neighborhood with lots of condos and residents over 50 might not yield a lot of play opportunities for a parent of a preschooler, Schiller says. Likewise, an engineer or college professor might not find the social interaction he's looking for in a neighborhood with low educational attainment.
Education, income, housing mix and the percentage of renters compared with owners can all be researched online and used to narrow your choice of neighborhoods. If you have kids, you should also check out your state's Megan's Law databases to make sure you're not moving into a high-risk area.
But it's just as important, agents say, to go out and talk to people.
Solution: Walk the neighborhood.
Get out of your car and walk around the community. Talk to people who are out watering their yard or walking their dog about their experiences with their neighbors, their habits and where they go for fun.
Take in the feel of the place. Are there people loitering on street corners for hours? Do you see a lot of dogs chained up and barking? Is there a lot of noise? Or conversely, are the streets vacant in the evenings because everyone has such a long commute?
Walk the streets in the morning and night to make sure the residents in an area are people with whom you feel comfortable.
5. They don't consider an area's amenities or culture.
That new development is safe and the houses are pretty. But what is there to do on the weekends? An array of family-style restaurants, fast food, movie theaters and a bowling alley might not cut it for someone used to galleries, live music and sushi.
Many people overlook the importance of the right amenities, services and culture in buying a house, agents say. Then they spend more time in the car driving to find the stores, restaurants and entertainment that they crave and don't connect with as many people in their own community.
Solution: Spend a weekend getting familiar with the scene.
Pretend you're a tourist and spend a night at a hotel in the area, Patton suggests. Wake up and walk to have coffee at a local shop, browse the stores in the main business district, head over to the local park and then eat dinner at a busy restaurant on a Saturday night.
Just as telling, she says, is the local grocery store. You can get a feel for how fast- or slow-paced a community is, she says, and how people are treated.
She recalls a friend from San Francisco who visited her rural California community and was shocked by the long lines, as cashiers talked up everyone who came through the checkout line. "She asked 'Are they always this slow?' She said she could never live here."
Lastly, look for signs of vitality in a community. Vacant buildings and stalled construction can be warning signs that a community is on the decline. Find out what's happening with these structures.
All of this neighborhood research may seem time-consuming, Patton says, but it's necessary, especially in today's stagnant housing market.
"This is the place you're going to need to live in for a long time," she says, "so make sure you're comfortable living in that location."