December 2013 Blogs
4 Questions To Surface the Best Neighborhood for You:
I’m a bit of a logistics nerd when it comes to planning my days, even on the weekends. I try to pack my days to the gills with the projects and people I love, so I need things to run like clockwork, frictionlessly. I’m also a creature of habit, and pride myself on finding and working with the best local merchants.
So, it’s fortunate for me that I live in a neighborhood that is all about the call-ahead. My favorite brunch spot has an hour-long wait - unless you call ahead (FYI: day-of calls only, no reservations in advance, ask for Sam). Same with my nail lady and my tire guy.
They’re the best in town, so they’re very oversubscribed, but they give me VIP treatment because I’ve struck upon the VIP formula: long-time repeat business and calling ahead.
But I didn’t really know this when I moved here - it just so happened to work out that my neighborhood and I are a perfect match. (Don’t even get me started about the regional park down the street, where the rangers take - and post! - almost as many pictures of my pugs as I do.) Of course, this is my third home, and the neighborhoods I landed in on my first two tries were decidedly less well-matched to my lifestyle. They weren’t bad neighborhoods, by any means. Just nowhere near as delightful on a daily basis as my current digs.
When we house hunt, we spend so much time worrying about the basics, like home style, pricing and school district scores, that we don’t always notice the nuances that can differentiate a match made in heaven from something that’s decidedly more meh. If you’re in the process of vetting neighborhoods and want to optimize the match, here are 4 questions to ask yourself, your agent and your prospective neighbors:
1. Sell your home on the range. I’m not suggesting that you need to be every-weekend running buddies with your new BFF next door. But if you run into the neighbors while you’re viewing a property, this can be a very revealing question to ask. It’ll help you get a feel for the general connectedness of people in the area. If no one you ask knows what anyone else likes to do, it might be the sort of place where people keep to themselves, which might or might not jive with the sort of lifestyle you’re hoping to build.
Even if people have very different interests, neighbors who talk to each other will know a little bit about each others’ interests. For example, I don’t spend a ton of time with my next door neighbors, and we are very different in age, ethnicity and household composition. But they know I go to yoga, dance a lot and walk my dogs on the regular. And I know they are active in their kids’ schools, run a catering side-business and have delightful-smelling extended family barbecues lots of weekends in the summertime.
If you ask even a few people in the area this question, you might even uncover hidden treasures within a short walk or drive from the property which would have taken you months or even years after closing to find on your own. Maybe there’s a little pocket park on the next street over, a Master’s swim club that meets early AMs at the neighborhood high school, a Baby Boot Camp that meets at a neighbor’s house or a series of cooking classes that meets in the back of the tiny grocery store on the corner. I’ve known buyers-to-be who found everything from their future photography buddies to their future deck-builders simply by getting friendly and chatty with their future neighbors while they were visiting and viewing a home.
2. What do you want your [your family’s] ecosystem to look and feel like? Get real with yourself about what you even want out of your neighborhood. I find it useful to think of your family or household as a living, multi-member, dynamic and ever-changing organism that will thrive in the right ecosystem.
That “right ecosystem” is your neighborhood.
If you are a busy career professional buying a home in a bedroom community of the urban area to which you commute, your biggest priorities might be convenience to the freeway, quiet, low-crime rates and neighbors who have just as much pride of ownership in their homes as you do. If you crave to be able to have your kids walk to school, walk to their extracurricular lessons and walk to their play dates with other kids who walk to the same school, that information will give you and your agent a great deal of direction to the neighborhoods that could be the right ecosystem for you - and a great deal of course-correction away from those that could never fit the bill.
Whether you see your just-right ecosystem as one that will allow you to keep bees and goats in the backyard or one that will allow you to hail a cab or get to the subway at any time of day or night, this question can help you get an actionable vision in place for finding the just-right neighborhood.
3. What do I need to know about this neighborhood that I’m not asking? What is not obvious? If you’re working with an agent who has experience in a neighborhood, they’re probably really good at breaking down the standard selling points about the area: great schools, great views, great local shops - that sort of thing. But when you’ve heard that basic briefing and you’re done getting your specific questions answered, I recommend that you ask your agent this open-ended question.
Throughout the course of your house hunt, your agent will get to know your personality and will get a feel for whether the flavor of person you are is a good fit with the flavor of the neighborhood. So asking them this open-ended question gives them a great opportunity to fill in the blanks in your understanding of the neighborhood based on what they know about both you and the neighborhood.
If your agent has a particularly long history working in that part of town, this question can also sometime serve as the little prompt that reminds them to give you deeper, more nuanced information than you might not get otherwise, like:
• sharing the colorful commentary about the past and present history and residents of the neighborhood
• connecting you with former clients who live there, and even
• telling you a deeper history of the home values in the neighborhood than might be evident from the comps, with the context of various homes they’ve worked with in the area over years and years.
4. Are there any common issues you frequently see with homes in this area? Inspectors know so much more information than they can ever put on a page, some of it comforting and some not. One thing they often know is how the geography, topography, soils, climate and environmental factors tend to impact homes in an area or even on a street over time.
For example, my town’s soils tend to be clay, not rock, and because clay expands and contracts with the weather, homes tend to get little settlement cracks and fall out of plumb over time. Up the hill from here, many of the homes have bridge driveways that span the gap from the hill to the home, and those need to be replaced every 20 or 30 years. And just up the street, homes tend to be very different and have different issues as they are mostly new construction that was built after a major fire a decade ago - compared with the 50 year old average age of homes at the bottom of the street.
Of course, by the time the average buyer talks to a home inspector, they’ve already tentatively settled on a neighborhood match. But occasionally, an inspector’s answers to this question can help you feel great about your choice. And on other, more rare occasions, their answers can help you get the right bids and improve your property preventively to avoid the area-specific issues that have caused nearby home owners to regret their choice of neighborhood.