There's no substitute for an in-person visit to help you choose your new neighborhood, but before you set off in search of a new community, visit Trulia's Stats & Trends for information on market trends, background on schools and parks, and crime statistics. (For example, check out the Stats & Trends for San Francisco and search for your neighborhood of interest at the top of the page.)
Depending on your household and your work life, here are several other factors to consider when making a list of neighborhoods to target.
Give yourself "a day in the life" of the neighborhood and check out local services and businesses and their vibe at different times of day, making sure to visit both on the weekdays and weekends. Where's the coffee shop and who's hanging out there? How well-stocked is the grocery store and is it open sufficient hours? Is there a pharmacy, dry cleaner, library, gas station, public park, place of worship, etc.? Are people pushing strollers and walking dogs, or are they hustling into retail stores? Read bulletin boards: Are there community events, art walks, parades, or delivery services exclusive to your prospective zip code? Dine out at night: Are patrons locals, or from elsewhere? How early do businesses close—or stay open?
If you're planning to get to know a new city for one year before buying a place, you've got a different mentality from someone who may be looking for that apartment to tide them over throughout four years of graduate school or a career renter seeking a home they could inhabit for a decade. Think of the present—will you enjoy this neighborhood now?—as well as future needs. Also consider what your work hours are like at present and how they may change later. Depending on your schedule, hours, and work demands, some neighborhood features may wind up less significant than others. For instance, night life may not matter if you're pulling all-nighters working in a hospital or you rise early for work on weekdays, but dinner take-out and delivery may be important if you work those hours.
What's the traffic like during your commute times of day, and how frequently does public transit serve the area during times you'd be riding? If you're serious about finding out, park and ride from the neighborhood one day to see for yourself. If your employer or city offers a local carpool or ride-share program, are there riders in this area? If your city has traffic-hobbling snow and ice during winter, can public transit—or your vehicle—negotiate slippery hills or winding side streets?
If you have school-aged children, review school statistics in Trulia's Stats & Trends section (For example, check out San Francisco schools and search for your area at the top of the page.) or via a service such as School Matters, which offers data on public schools, or Great Schools, which offers data on both public and private schools. If you're not sure which of multiple schools your child could attend in your potential new school district, make sure to read up on multiple institutions within the zip code you're considering as well as in adjoining zip codes so you'll know the range of options. Make sure to double-check whether or not your target school has a wait list or is currently enrolling.
If you're single and looking to date, but the neighborhood is mainly occupied by married folks or people in a vastly different age range, will your social life thrive in your area? If you're coupled and planning to start a family, or are already a parent, do you want to live among partying post-grads? If you're a parent, are the schools well-attended, or is there a small student population enrolled on local campuses? If you're going to hire babysitters, investigate the teenage or college student population.
If you're concerned about living in an area where petty crime is frequent or where more dramatic criminal activity is happening, ask the local police precinct to provide you with crime statistics and how to research the presence of sex offenders. To get a realistic sense of how your neighborhood compares with others in your city, you may also want to check broader resources, such as the Neighborhood Scout crime rate tool or within data provided by City Data or Home Facts or Trulia Stats & Trends.
Is there sufficient street or pay parking for friends who might visit you in your new location? Also, consider how far away everyone lives. If you don't have a sense of this already, plug friends work or home addresses into Google Maps or another mapping service, or vet public transit, to determine how easy to access your new area is.
If you want to live in a walking-friendly neighborhood, check and see if your prospective area has so-called "walkability" by getting its walk score—a score from 0 (least walkable) to 100 (most walkable) at Walk Score.
Local media and city neighborhood departments are a great source of news regarding emerging neighborhoods, forthcoming attractions that aren't yet apparent (planned parks, rezoning initiatives), and city projects that can influence quality of life in different neighborhoods. Is a new bus route in the works? Has a new community basketball court given aimless youth a new outlet? Is that corner building with papered-over windows about to become a hip new wine bar?