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By Tara-Nicholle Nelson | Broker in San Francisco, CA

7 Neighborhood Need-to-Knows for 21st Century Home Buyers

The 21st century is in full effect. And that means a couple of things for savvy home buyers who are in the process of vetting prospective neighborhoods. Investigating neighborhood basics like school districts and such is no longer tricky or difficult: there are ample resources online giving detailed information about schools, scores and even parent reviews.
As well, savvy sellers and their agents are more likely now than ever to market amenities like proximity to parks and shopping districts in a home’s marketing materials. In many states, formal reports are now disclosed from every seller to every buyer as a matter of law by third party services with detailed access to information about faultlines, flood zones, landslides, radon gas, airport zones and former military zones that a property might be impacted by, as well as a slew of other environmental hazards that were difficult to investigate in generations past.

While technology and industry developments have supercharged a buyer’s ability to get basic neighborhood need-to-knows, the 21st century has also given rise to entirely new sets of neighborhood assets - and liabilities. Fortunately, the information age has cracked stores of neighborhood data wide open, giving each of us the power to tap into knowledge about our future necks-of-the-woods with a few clicks - knowledge that was inconvenient or impossible to access, even a few years ago.

Here are 7 of those next-gen neighborhood need-to-knows, and the next-gen tools for investigating them:

1.  All about crime. Crime rates are essential indicators of neighborhood desirability, although blanket labels of ‘safe’ vs. ‘dangerous’ neighborhoods are outdated and unhelpful, when it comes to directing a house hunt. Most buyers familiar with their towns know on a basic level whether a neighborhood has a reputation for being safe or being crime-riddled. Further, if you are buying on a budget that strictly limits your overall neighborhood options, the black-and-white, safe-or-not dichotomy does nothing to help you make more nuanced decisions about your house hunt.

Now, though, buyers have open access to crime report databases that previously could only be accessed via tedious, time-consuming and generally infeasible hours spent flipping through police records down at the station. And the availability of these records online has empowered much more sophisticated and meaningful ways of sorting this data, for the purposes of the average home buyer.  

For example, our interactive crime maps offer heat maps showing the density of crime reports in neighborhoods located in 50 markets across the country. They also allow you to sort by hours, by crime category and by violent vs. non-violent crime - so you know what sorts of crime are committed in your neighborhood at what times of day and you can gauge a non-violent, high-crime area (where you’ll want to keep your car parked in the garage) from a very violent, high-crime area (where you’ll want to watch your back, among other things). Trulia Local makes these nuanced, neighborhood crime insights available to buyers across the nation - along with other neighborhood need-to-knows like school data, commute times and restaurants.

Finally, almost every state now offers a digitized Megan’s Law database, which surfaces information about registered sex offenders and other criminals and where they live. The type and detail of the information varies widely by county and state, but it can be informative to search for the address of a home you’re considering buying and see what sort and number of convicted criminals live within a given geographic radius, before you make your final commitment to a home.

2.  Meth labs.  These next-gen, interactive reports of crime rates, types, hours and pinpoint locations are uber-useful, but there’s another type of crime-related data that can help protect your family’s day-to-day health: the Drug Enforcement Agency’s database of addresses which have been used as laboratories for making methamphetamine (and other drugs). Fact is, most meth labs are (or were) homes, and its not uncommon for them to be sold to unsuspecting buyers by their former owners’ estates, investment corporations, foreclosing banks and other sellers that (a) might not even know the places were once used as meth labs, and (b) are exempt, legally, from making detailed disclosures to buyers, even if they are aware.

Meth lab properties are often contaminated with flammable, explosive and toxic chemicals that can affect the health of later buyers and residents - even neighbors, depending on the contamination level. Search the DEA database, here, but don’t neglect to Google your target property’s address to determine whether your state or county might also maintain searchable digital databases of meth-contaminated properties.

3.  Social connectedness, online and off. On a (much) lighter note, savvy buyers might like to know whether their neighborhoods have next-gen social amenities like block parties, newsletters, email lists, homeowner resources for vendors like child care and handyman services, and even neighborhood-specific social networks:
  • Review any HOA disclosures (if relevant), which may contain newsletters and other social information
  • Ask your home’s seller and/or the homeowner’s association (HOA) management company,
  • Google your neighborhood’s name and peruse the results, and
  • Search sites like Facebook, NabeWise and NextDoor to find your target neighborhood’s online social networks, blogs and groups.

4.  Technological and communications capabilities.  When you’ve lived in one spot for a number of years, it’s easy to take your area’s technological capabilities for granted. For instance your provider(s) cell networks and reception capabilities (including 3G and 4G networks) might allow for incredible reception where you live, but not in another neighborhood across town. In fact, if you’re moving from a an urban area to a more rural one, you might be surprised at how spotty or non-existent cell service still is in some areas. In the same vein, many areas across the country are still waiting for the broadband and fiber optic cable infrastructure development that will allow residents to tap into digital television, phone and internet services.

Technological capabilities - or the lack thereof - are unlikely to be a deal-breaker if you’re planning to buy a home, but they are something that might help you prioritize among multiple neighborhoods or homes you’ve been considering.  Getting up to speed on what’s available can help you understand what additional changes you might have to make - and charges you might incur for making them - to optimize your technologies and services once you move. Contact your cell, cable, phone and internet providers to determine what’s available in your neighborhood-to-be; many of the major mobile carriers also have voice, data, 3G and 4G network coverage maps on their websites.

5.  Potentially problematic HOA rules and municipal regulations.  You might want to build a tall fence for backyard privacy, plant a food garden in your front yard or have bees, goats or other light livestock on your property - but your city’s regulations may or may not allow these things, depending on the zoning of your neighborhood. Similarly, you might want to paint your home a shade that isn’t allowed by the HOA rules, or have more cars than your desired home has “legal” parking spaces - HOA regulations may even go so far as to ban exterior satellite dishes, pets and even some internal home improvements.

Read the HOA rules and regulations disclosed by your next home’s seller very, very thoroughly to understand any such limitations before you buy. And if you’re considering any sort of urban farming or have plans to make major changes to the exterior of your home after closing, you might want to contact the city building and planning department before you remove your contingencies, to see what would and would not be involved in making those changes to that home.

6.  Future developments that might affect your ability to enjoy your home. Many states require that sellers disclose any manufacturing, commercial, airport or industrial zones that currently exist near the property. What is less clear to most buyers is the equally important issue of whether there are any proposals currently being considered by the powers that be that would create new zones that fall into these categories - proposals that could very well uptick the traffic, noise, odors and pollution that you’ll have to deal with in the home as time goes on. You should feel free to ask the seller flat out, but here’s where a call to the city and a plain old Google search for the neighborhood names and cross streets can also be helpful, to turn up news reports of relevant proposals and permit requests.  Ask your agent for guidance on other local sources you might be able to tap into.

7.  Upcoming/proposed special assessments. HOAs can impose special assessments to cover building and common area repairs and upgrades. And some cities,districts, neighborhoods and states vote in special assessments that are added onto local homeowners’ property tax bills for things like first responder services, street lighting, supplemental school funding and the like. Once these things have already been imposed, they are disclosed through title and HOA disclosures, but it’s best to know about them when they’re coming down the pike.  

Reviewing the disclosed HOA reserves and financials - as well as recent newsletters and Board meeting minutes - can hip you to upcoming special assessments before they take effect, and paying attention to (or researching) recent local ballot measures can do the same for the governmental special assessments.

ALL:  What do you think are the most critical, but overlooked, neighborhood need-to-knows?
All: You should follow Trulia and Tara on Facebook!     


By Dpwill2,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 10:30
Thank you for the info especially meth labs but what about schools??
By Dpwill2,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 10:31
What about schools?
By kelleymilburnf,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 11:10
out of town rual no towns
By steuern70,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 11:17
Noise is the most important. We live in a very nice neighborhood, but people (especially those gone all day long) feel they must have dogs. They bark constantly because they have no attention. Just walking out the back door can trigger a flood of neighborhood barking. We can no longer use our back patio. Don't people hear their own dogs? If my children made that much noise, you can bet someone would have a complaint!
By Maya Thomas LLC, Broker,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 11:23
What an amazing all-encompassing article! Perfect info to share with my buyers!
By Zercov Badinoff,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 11:27
Airport expansion is a big consideration. In the search for economic expansion, I doubt my county is the only one that will allow expansion so that jumbo jets will buzz your home at 6 in the morning or midnight.

If you are anywhere near an airport, regardless of how far you are from the current flight paths, try to find out where they plan on adding additional runways.
By David Barr,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 11:39
Really good to know the 21st century is in full effect. I may not have found that out for another 3 or 4 years on my own.
By Rosemary P,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 11:41
One very important factor is to visit the future property on evenings, nights and weekends, so you can see if the street is over flowing with parked cars, kids, teens, street basketball players or if there are any "party houses" that belong to a neighbor's kids. Usually none of this is visable during school and business hours. You may assume you are moving into a nice quiet street, only to find it's much different once everyone gets home.
By Itsnotme1207,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 11:55
thank you these are exactly the concerns we'll have about our next home. my husband works from home as an animator and sends huge files, so it's very important that our next home, which will be out in the country, has good internet service. if it doesn't then i'll have to keep in mind the added costs to get it out there to the new home.

also want to add, i've lived a ton of places in my short 31 years and there has ALWAYS been something i don't like about the neighborhood. like Rosemary P said it's a good idea to check it out at different times and days but that doesn't always work. anyone can move out and the neighbor from hell can move in, have a meth lab, crazy dogs etc. you can't plan for everything. buy land, lots of it, it's your best deffense.
By Itsnotme1207,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 12:02
a dog zapper should be able to help you with that. i know a few dog owner who use their dog zapper to get them to stop barking.
By Rosemary P,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 12:33
One very important factor is to visit the future property on evenings, nights and weekends, so you can see if the street is over flowing with parked cars, kids, teens, street basketball players or if there are any "party houses" that belong to a neighbor's kids. Usually none of this is visable during school and business hours. You may assume you are moving into a nice quiet street, only to find it's much different once everyone gets home.
By yaybs,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 12:34
This article was really helpful because I'm thinking about buying a vacation home out of state & I really don't know the neighborhoods. Further, in a few years I want to sell my primary home & get another a few miles away. Another source for unemployment, crime, gender break-down, etc information is http://www.city-data.com. Your articles are always interesting, please keep them coming.
By Barbara,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 12:40
Very good article, some thing's I never thought about so thank you for posting.
By Grey78130,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 13:18
Schools and crime are tops for families.
By George,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 13:22
Schools and checking for registered sex offenders should be listed here, too
By gsanders,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 13:26
Wish I had read this before I moved into my sub-division. Things to consider -- the time of year you purchase(we moved in February) and didn't see all the things like: basketball in the streets; BBQ parties that take up the entire street; neighbors that don't mow their lawns (and HOA does nothing; fences that need repair; make shift bicycle ramps. Can someone tell me who to contact when the HOA violates their covenant and does not protect the home buyer?
By Agnes Tabor, REALTOR,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 14:01
Another good article but ,meth labs? Anyway you have sparked some great comments. I am particularly fond of visiting the areas at odd times, evenings and weekend afternoons. Once a buyer has zeroed in on a neighborhood be sure to make the suggestion. Especially that "quiet neighborhood" very deceiving.
By Darren Wilson,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 14:02
Where I live, schools seem to have more weight than any other factor, including crime. It's presumed that these neighborhoods are safer, and indeed they are, but that's more of a result or a cost of the neighborhood. At the edge of the neighborhood, literally across the street, the identical house in a bad school district might be 2/3 or even half the cost. Those are in the same neighborhood for any crime stat purposes.
By Jim Summers,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 14:19
In the City of Los Angeles, the unlicensed Sober Living Homes and Boarding Homes may be the "silent killer" for many in the joy of home-ownership. These are rather hard to find online, even if you know the area. Landlords rent 3-6 bedroom homes to 15-30 tenants charging $500-$3000/tenant. These are in high-end areas also now, in one case there were 90 tenants in a 6 bedroom home! With over 5,000 parolees being released to our area due to prison overcrowding, and the bulk sales of foreclosure properties to investors, we are even more concerned. Would appreciate your opinions.
By Rhys Larkin,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 14:52
We are considering moving to a state where fracking is legal. Any way we can find out whether it is happening in the county or nearby?
By 45DB.COM,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 15:44

Prospective buyers should commission a professional "due-diligence" noise survey!

An objective answer to noisiness is clearly revealed in the due diligence noise survey. All sounds / noises are recorded and documented over a carefully selected 48-hour period. Based on the due diligence study, the prospective buyer can make an informed decision based on facts.

Best to know before you buy.

The best time period to measure noise levels is beginning any Friday at noon, continuously through to Sunday at noon (48 hours).

You are then provided with a continuous record of all events and occurrences in and around the property and an accurate record of sound levels through the day and night during the busiest weekend hours.

This may help the prospective buyer make the final decision about a major real estate purchase.

See more at http://www.45dba.com/2012/07/whats-that-noise-due-diligence-noise.html?utm_source=BP_recent
By Gail Coplin,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 15:49
Good to have a buyer's agent representing you. If you deal with the seller's agent, his or her loyalties are to their client. They aren't obligated to share information other than the normal disclosures to you, and they want their commission. What happens to you after you bought the property is your problem.
By Machia0705,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 16:28
How about the neighbor who lives in his driveway, friday through sunday 11am -1 am!
By Ian Gray,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 17:53
Thanks for sharing!
By Fgcampbell,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 18:38
There are towns and cities in our wonderful country where meth labs are a serious problem, and you never know they are there unless you canvas the neighborhoods and are a careful watcher. The signs are there, just pay attention. You can also visit the local police department and they can tell you where they found the latest offenders.
By Pink646,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 19:24
Too bad the links for crime and meth labs are very outdated. Last update 2005?
By Heidi,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 20:22
I suggest researching traffic at different times of year as well. I drove my route to work before buying and it took 25 minutes. Once school started my commute became 45 minutes and college students began using my neighborhood as a parking lot. Would have been good to know.
By EnnisP,  Thu Sep 13 2012, 22:50
Where are the links for items 4 thru 7? Need those too.
By graviedave,  Fri Sep 14 2012, 04:59
The best time to see a neighborhood is Friday or Saturday night 9pm. My Neighbors all get stupid about this time ...Good luck
By Lloyd Freyer,  Fri Sep 14 2012, 05:56
How about FEMA flood zones? I have tried to look at the maps online, they're not very clear. Flood zones are not disclosed in our MLS, I usually have to rely on an insurance agent or hire a surveyor/engineer to get the flood rating.
By Barb Mihalik,  Fri Sep 14 2012, 06:05
Great article! I tell prospective buyers to go to the neighborhood after work and on weekends to see who's out and about. I also like to hang out at the neighborhood school when school lets out. It can shed some light on things, too. I also like to talk to the neighbors about how they like the neighborhood and any goings-on that should be known. Lots of good sites included in your article for buyers to visit. Thank you!
By Ruth & Perry Mistry,  Fri Sep 14 2012, 06:52
Well written thanks.
By kripplekreekuniq,  Fri Sep 14 2012, 07:33
I live in a zoned general agricultural area on a one lane dirt road driveway. My neighbors applied for a business license and received a restricted license which states ...no more than 10 vehicles per day , that limit has exceeded many times per day and the excess traffic has caused dust pollution to extremes. I pay a road maintenance agreement and now feel I am paying to benefit his business...this is now considered a disclosure when I decide to sell and I feel depreciates my property. What can I do about this?
By Icarus,  Fri Sep 14 2012, 09:16
don't forget Everyblock.org , not available in all cities yet but expanding daily.
By gnamm2,  Fri Sep 14 2012, 12:06
That is all well and good until you have been in your home for 8 years and your kids have to move back home for any reason and you have one JERK neighbor that moves in and complains daily to the city and has warrants issued for your arrest over parking! HOAs can and in many cases are over jealous and overstep even what is in the covenants! Ours recently decided what color bark or straw you can put in your flower beds. And they grade how much is in there when they do their neighborhood assessments! Nothing I would have ever seen or known until I had the misfortune of a bad neighbor!
By jrkearns40,  Sat Sep 15 2012, 04:10
Great Article and comments are helpful too. As a single female, this article addresses concerns the agent cannot help with.
By Barbara Brandt,  Sun Sep 16 2012, 17:34
If you have the option of buying a home in one state and work in another like I do, you might want to compare how schools are funded, how property taxes are impacted over at least the last 10 years, and of course, consider all of at the above excellent ideas. Property taxes are a big issue for me and with what I have experienced in the last 10 years, learned about the back door process for mayors to avoid the property tax cap like my mayor did, I would not consider buying again in my current state.
By Tarek,  Tue Sep 18 2012, 14:30
This Article must helpful for the what they need. I have no words to thank Tara-Nicholle Nelson fir this great post. Please, let me love this article. This post includes Flat in Mohali and that is also helpful. I can't but thank you.
By Mark Acantilado,  Wed Sep 19 2012, 07:49
I guess you have said it all. But one thing I would like to add, IMO - which is the environmental factor of the location / your neighborhood. The means of transportation and easy access to commercial, groceries etc areas or hospitals and a lot more.
By Glen Kuhn,  Wed Sep 19 2012, 20:17
By Cindy,  Fri Feb 15 2013, 00:24
Maybe this was already mentioned, but we bought the local neighborhood newspapers and read the police crime logs each week in the area where we were searching for a vacation home. Our first realtor told us how "safe" the neighborhood was (she lived in the same area) and told us how she never locks her doors. We saw just the opposite after reading the crime logs. We changed realtors for that reason alone. We felt she was lying just to make a sale.
We still bought in that area, but went in with our eyes open! Check out the local newspapers.
By snareisbroken,  Tue Mar 12 2013, 23:21
This article is pretty good. Most cities have a flood plain map online to help determine if you will need flood insurance or not (which is pretty expensive no matter what city you live in!). A lot of cities have crime maps on their main sites as well. And the article is correct about foreclosed properties and a few other types -- some do not require full disclosure such as crimes or murder committed in the prospective home.
By Ronald Hansen,  Sun Nov 24 2013, 18:48
Importance to my wife and I concerning a home purchase. 1) no homeowners associations. I am currently living in my fifth home and it has been a total joke for all 5 homes. We will never purchase another home with a HOA. Crime rate is also very important. Shopping district is also important. All of our children are out of the nest so school district is minor. Home values must remain higher than the neighboring areas. Last but not least Excellent medical services should be readily available in this suburb. .Where is this suburb or something equivalent?

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