You know you want to live in a safe place, but what else should you be looking for when evaluating a new neighborhood?
If you’re in the market to buy a home or rent a home, location is crucial. Quality schools, low crime statistics, commute times, and even grocery stores are likely already on your neighborhood checklist. But what could you be missing when it comes to evaluating a new neighborhood?
1. Where will you go to have fun?
It’s natural to focus on proximity to your job when you’re looking for a place to live. After all, you probably travel between home and the office more frequently than you travel anywhere else.
But don’t forget about your downtime. Does the new place offer easy access to your favorite hobbies? Will you have to drive farther in rush hour traffic to get your kids to their after-school activities, or get up earlier on weekends to get to your favorite hiking trail? Make a list of the places you go most often to relax, and make sure getting there from your new home won’t take all the fun out of it.
2. Read the fine print
If your neighborhood has a community association, make sure you’re familiar with all of its guidelines before you decide to paint your house bright yellow. There may be community rules on what you can and can’t do with your new home. The covenants, conditions, and restrictions, also known as CC&Rs, govern things like whether you can paint your house, put up a satellite dish, keep a vehicle on the street, or store a boat. Make sure you understand all fees imposed by the community association, and factor them in when you’re figuring out how much rent or mortgage payments you can afford.
3. Homeowners associations and property managers
Your new neighborhood’s property manager or homeowners association (HOA) will make a huge difference in your quality of life. Look for obvious signs of their management abilities, such as whether the administrative building is kept in good repair.
If you’d like to dive into a more thorough search, many large property management companies share their ratings online. Talking to neighbors can be useful as well, and you might try searching the online archives of your local newspaper to see if the HOA has received any press — good or bad.
Problems with the HOA may explain suspiciously low rents. You’ll want to know before you move in if the HOA has declared bankruptcy or imposed a special assessment on members.
4. Taxes and insurance
If you’re moving to a new area, you may not be aware of the differences in taxes from one municipality to another. Property taxes can change dramatically when you cross a political border like the city limits or the county line, and some cities charge local income tax on top of what you’re already paying to the state and the federal government.
Car insurance may also be higher depending on where you park at night, so talk to your insurance company and your accountant before you make an offer or sign a lease. You don’t want any expensive surprises.
Property listings usually reveal what kind of sewer and water access the property has, but you may not think to check for other types of utilities. Will you have high-speed Internet access in your new home? You may also want to find out what cable companies provide the best service in the area. Cellphone reception has improved a lot in recent years, but pay attention to how many dropped calls you experience in your potential new neighborhood. You may find that you need a new carrier along with your new address.
6. Light and noise
The basketball hoop in the cul-de-sac seemed like a great indicator of a kid-friendly community when you were house hunting, but it may not seem so charming when the neighborhood teenagers are shooting hoops late into the night. If you’re sensitive to noise or light, look around with an eye toward protecting your sleep. Pay attention to busy roads, streetlights, bus and train routes, and bars and restaurants. If you love to be in the thick of things, you may be thrilled by the activity, but if you’re a light sleeper, you may want to invest in a white-noise machine — or find another neighborhood.
Don’t forget to check the Walk Score of your new address. Being able to walk to a cafe, a library, and a grocery store will save you money and keep you healthier. Maybe you’ll even decide to ditch the car altogether.
If you’re moving to a rural area, you can still think about potential walks from your home, but instead of walking to the bakery on a Saturday morning, you may be walking across a field to have a cup of coffee with a neighbor, or walking to your favorite bird-watching spot in the woods. Take it a step further and look for bike lanes. A good network of bike lanes and well-kept sidewalks indicates a local government that’s willing to invest in the health and safety of its constituents.