Reader Question: We found a home we are very interested in buying. We hear a lot of different opinions about how to check out the neighborhood. Do you have a due-diligence checklist for checking out a block?
Monty’s Answer: Consider a conversation over a checklist. The reason you hear so many opinions is that people’s circumstances and life experiences are often very different. The ways we approach life affect what we look for when we choose where to live.
Another consideration is mobility. We move for many reasons. For example, 50 years ago if you had a neighbor that was disruptive, nasty, or irritating, you put up with it. Today, some homeowners will merely move. So you may enjoy your neighbor today, but they may be gone tomorrow, and the next neighbor you may never see.
The value in sleuthing
A good reason to poke around is to determine if it fits your family and your lifestyle. Consider making a list of what is important to you in a location. Another reason to check out a neighborhood is to weigh neighborhood characteristics against potential changes in the value of the property under consideration. Is it likely the home will rise in value, fall in value, or stay the same during your ownership? Finally, consider resale circumstances that may widen or narrow your future market, depending on how long you plan to own the home. For example, some buyers don’t consider school districts when looking because they have no children. But, if you are buying a home that is appealing to a family with children, the wrong school district could limit your future market.
The big three tasks
Pride of ownership is a crucial feature. Drive and walk the blocks around the home. Visit at different times of the day and the week. Well-kept homes and yards, vehicles kept in a garage and little or no outside storage are the norms. Pride of ownership extends across all price ranges and tends to be owner-occupied property. Your primary focus should be the homes within three to five doors in each direction on the same side of the street, the opposite side of your street and the five backyard homes of the next street. Here is a link about knocking on doors at http://bit.ly/2LWyDnO for on-the-spot insights. You want the MLS sales history, not just a verbal opinions. These sale histories should demonstrate value trend lines and potentially, turnover frequency.
There are two separate types of crime sites in many municipalities. One is the sex offender or predator registry. The Megan’s Law link is http://bit.ly/2J9JQDP. The other is a crime website operated by the city or county that you find with a search engine by typing in "<name city> crime map" or similar words. Crime sites identify types of crimes like break-ins, car theft, and assault, around a property address.
Other common checkpoints
Environmental and weather-related issues: Floodplains, drainage, groundwater contamination, and similar concerns. In case the seller forgot required items on the condition report, you can check the property on the municipality’s website. Find it by typing "<your municipality> GIS maps," and a link should appear in search results. There are layers in the GIS map application that reveal floodplain, topography, environmentally sensitive areas, and much more.
Vacant land can be an issue. If vacant land is adjacent or nearby, you cannot be confident what will become of it. You may hear "it is zoned residential so there is nothing to fear." Owners change zoning. While some uses may help you, some projects may be detrimental so weigh the presence of vacant land in your decision. To a lesser extent, a home in a new subdivision requires extra due-diligence. Developments fail, builders overextend themselves and become insolvent, and the land lies in uncertainty for a long time. The next owner may have a different vision. Look at the developers track record, their time in the business, and the sales rate in the development for clues to financial strength.
Characteristics homebuyers look for are parks, the age of the neighborhood, rental density, demographics, and property taxes.
Other helpful resources could be mail carriers, online maps, your insurance company’s rates, law enforcement, a local newspaper, neighborhood businesses, the seller, and the U.S. Census Bureau Zip Code Demographics at http://bit.ly/2st2EmO.
Keep in mind there is no perfect neighborhood and that people you speak with have biases that likely creep into their comments.
— Richard Montgomery is the author of "House Money - An Insider’s Secrets to Saving Thousands When You Buy or Sell a Home." He is a real estate industry veteran who advocates industry reform and offers readers unbiased real estate advice. Ask him questions at DearMonty.com.