First-Time Homebuyer: Researching Your New Neighborhood

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Senior Writer
First-Time Homebuyer: Researching Your New Neighborhood

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I once lived in a neighborhood with a Christmas chicken. My across-the-street neighbor was a top executive of a local poultry company and must have thought that a 6-foot lighted lawn ornament of a chicken was a festive holiday touch.

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The point is: Neighborhoods have unique personalities.

Besides considering simple matters of quirkiness, finding a neighborhood that suits your lifestyle is a critical component of the homebuying process. It figures into the present and future value of a property, your safety and wellbeing — and your budget.

Financial considerations

Of course, you’ll be concerned with current home prices — that’s a given. But you’ll also want to consider recent property value appreciation or the lack thereof. Your real estate agent will provide you with a comparative market analysis for homes in the neighborhoods you’re interested in.

It’s a matter of making sure you’re comfortable with where prices are going — hopefully up — especially after you buy. Real estate website Zillow shows a 10-year history of home values as well as a projection for where prices may be headed.

As a new homeowner, property taxes will be a substantial part of your annual expenses. Most popular real estate websites offer this info, including Zillow and If you’re moving from another state or even county, you may also want to find out how other taxes will impact your budget. Local sales tax details are available at; income tax rates on a local and state level can be found at

Transportation expenses can be a lifestyle and a pocketbook issue. How long your commute to work will be and how much of a hassle it will entail can be major factors in deciding where to live. Comparing the cost of a commute in your own vehicle to public transportation options can help you narrow down your choices.

Lifestyle factors

So you won’t be surprised when a neighbor decides to mount a unique yard display, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research on your potential new address. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Checking out the area from above in Google Maps Street View may reveal nuisances not always apparent from the ground: railroad tracks behind a subdivision, a borrow pit loaded with heavy earthmovers behind that innocent-looking green space or a drainage ditch you hadn’t noticed before.

  • A good walk and leisurely drive through the area can reveal nearby amenities: bicycle paths, parks, restaurants, libraries and shops.

  • A school district evaluator site can help you judge local campuses. Even if you don’t have children or plan on having any soon, living in an excellent school district will yield higher home values.

  • If you’re a pet lover, you’ll want to find out whether there are any homeowner association (HOA) restrictions on the size and number of pets per residence.

  • Visiting a neighborhood at random times of the day or night and on the weekend — or better yet, a holiday — can disclose noise issues. And fun block parties.

  • Talking to neighbors can give you a sense of the age and attitudes of neighbors. Who knew that well-appointed new development was a 55+ community? People who live in adjacent neighborhoods might give you even more of a lowdown about potential negatives than current residents.

  • Noting the condition of streets, sidewalks and city services can tip you off to how the neighborhood will wear in the future — and the strength of its tax base for ongoing improvements.

Sperling’s Best Places offers community profiles with economic and cost of living information, local medical facilities and more.

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Safety issues

Real estate agents can’t disclose information regarding crime and the safety of a neighborhood because of the fear of violating the Fair Housing Act. Websites such as and can pinpoint street-level crime.

A home’s value declines by 4% on average if it’s located within one-tenth of a mile of a sex offender’s residence, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. You’ll find the national sex offender database at, where you can search a neighborhood for registered offenders.

Unexpected attractions

A major motion picture with a holiday theme was filmed in that small-town neighborhood where I used to live and had just been released. Giant tour buses would roam the streets pointing out movie landmarks. Of course, my house wasn’t one of them. And my neighbor with the Christmas chicken wasn’t a movie location either, but his poultry display was enough to make each bus stop. Right in front of my house. Several times a night throughout the holiday season.

You can research a neighborhood before you move in, but you still may get some surprises.

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