Buying a home is no joke. It’s a high stakes purchase and deserves its share of research and homework. It’s so important for you and your family to feel happy and comfortable in your new home, but often times, the location and neighborhood of a home weighs more heavily than the home itself.
It’s not unusual to know nothing about the neighborhoods or school districts in your geographic home-buying consideration set. When that’s the case, you should turn to a knowledgeable area expert like a Realtor- especially with unfamiliar areas – but it also pays to do your own research prior to connecting with an agent.
So where do you start? There are tons of resources out there designed to aid in the homebuying process, and this is just a short list of some we recommend. With increases in technology and the world’s most powerful research device in the palm of your hand, it’s easy to learn about a neighborhood before purchasing a home.
Getting to know the area demographics
Use the census!
Although some may consider this a bit of an old-school tactic, the US Census can be a good starting point for breakdowns of age, population, graduation rates, median household income, and more. The census is run every 10 years with the last one being from 2010, so keep that in mind when reading through the data.
Search Neighborhood Scout
For more recent demographics for your neighborhood of interest, turn to Neighborhood Scout. It’s a really well designed website that gives you details like age pie charts, graduation rates, poverty rates, and most common industries of employment – all you have to do is enter an address or town to get started.
Discover what makes a neighborhood special
Back to Neighborhood Scout!
You’ll find that Neighborhood Scout is useful for more than just demographics research. After plugging in city or town, you’ll be shown a written “Profile” of the town providing an overview of the area, including some facts about what makes it unique.
Rank “walkability” with Walk Score
To learn more about physical points of interest, Walk Score is a nifty tool to play around with too. Enter any address and see information about commute times to nearby towns, as well as a “Walk Score” out of 100 for the ability to walk (or drive) short distances to get to shopping, schools, parks, and other data points. There’s also a “What’s Nearby” feature with an interactive map showing nearby restaurants, coffee shops, bars, groceries, schools, entertainment, and neighborhood essentials.
Find out about public transportation
Rely on town-owned public transportation website
There’s usually no better resource for learning about an area’s public transportation than by visiting the town or area operated public transportation website. Just head over to Google and search “[the town you’re researching] public transportation” and it should be the top link. They typically all provide available routes, bus ticket information, and pricing for all town resources.
Use interactive public transportation maps from Walk Score
Walk Score address searches also return an interactive map giving you a really nice visual of all available public transportation stops nearby. You can find your house-of-interest to see what’s close-by or zoom out to see the region as a whole. Neighborhoods in the Upstate New York area we operate in require a car in most cases, but public transportation availability often plays a prominent role in moving & buying decisions.
Find the A+ school districts
Dig up good grades with School Digger
The quality of a school district is often a make-or-break for house-hunters, so you’re not alone in wanting to make sure your kids are getting the best education possible. Luckily there’s some really great resources to help narrow things down. Type any town into School Digger and see information about all of the schools within the district. An interactive map shows where the schools are located, and each school is labeled with its rank, total number of students, and a comparison to other districts in the region.
Once again… Neighborhood Scout
Neighborhood Scout does something similar. Enter the town of interest (or a specific address) in the main search bar, then navigate to the ‘Schools’ tab. It shows a color coded map of the best schools in the area, as well as details like number of students enrolled, number of schools in the district, and the number of students per classroom. There’s also some stats for ethnic/racial enrollment rates and education expenditures.
Feel safe by researching area crime rates
Download CrimeReports for iPhone
There’s a handful of apps out there, but this one has the highest rank on the iTunes store. CrimeReports is a free app giving you real-time access to a neighborhoods crime and sex offender information. You can filter data by location, date, crime type, and use the interactive map to see exactly what’s going on in the areas you frequent, or could potentially frequent if you moved to the area.
Use the National Sex Offender public website
For New Yorkers, the National Sex Offender Registry from the NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services features an easy search tool to see any registered sex offenders in your area of interest. The apps seem to be easier to use with a more neighborhood based search function, as this NYS website only pulls up a list of names with details for each when searching an area, versus showing a map of where the offenders live.
Get a birds-eye view with Google Earth
This is such an amazing technology. Interested in a home? Search the address using Google Earth and zoom all the way from space right to the front door. You can view the entire neighborhood from above, test out how far your commute is, or check the distance to family members. Google did a great job of literally driving a camera through most neighborhoods in the United States, so there’s a good chance you can use the Google Street View tool to see the house actually looks like from the curb. You can move your way around the neighborhood as if you’re the one driving through it to get a real life feel of what it’s like.
See what there is to do for fun
Now for the fun stuff… What’s the nightlife like? What sort of entertainment is available in the area? Sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, or apps like Gravy (and even a quick Google search) are all great ways to discover fun things to do near your (potentially) new home. They let you see customer reviews of local restaurants, nightlife, shopping, and more all through a visual map.
If you’re an Instagram user, try searching a few relevant hashtags to see what people have been doing and posting from the neighborhood. You can search the town name, restaurant names, just about anything you’re interested in. Besides searching hashtags, you can search photos taken in a specific location. For example, let’s say you’re interested in homes near Gloversville, New York, you could search for all photos that have been tagged with Gloversville as the location of the picture. Pretty neat, right?
Okay. You’ve done your homework, you love the house, and you’re thinking about putting an offer in. What else can you do to feel confident you’re choosing the right neighborhood?
Drive through the area
If you’re reasonably close to your sought after neighborhood, try to drive through the area at different times. What’s the morning commute traffic like? What does the neighborhood look and sound like on a Friday night? Are there kids out and about playing in the neighborhood on Saturday mornings? You’ll start to pick up on little bits of detail about the area, and it can help you and your family through the decision making process.
Talk to the neighbors
Once you’ve done your research on the neighborhood and surrounding areas, have seen the house in person, and are contemplating putting in an offer, it’s not a bad idea to go talk to the neighbors. This should go without saying, but always be respectful without being intrusive. Maybe approach them with a kind wave if you see them outside, or ring the doorbell if it’s not dinnertime and the lights are on. Ask them how they’ve liked living there, what the vibe on the block is like, how their kids like the schools, etc. Keep it lighthearted and fun – after all, you may be living nextdoor from them! More likely than not you’ll be able to pull more value out of one conversation with a neighborhood resident than in an hour of internet research.
Our hope is that these tips for getting to know a neighborhood before buying a house help make your home-buying process just a little bit easier. It’s a big decision! You want to be prepared and feel confident in your move.
If you’re interested in homes in the Capital Region or Southern Adirondack area of Upstate New York, reach out to one of our local offices or send a message to one of our experts through our site’s live chat feature! We’ve helped families throughout the community continue their stories in new homes through the region, we can help you, too!
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