If you have already narrowed your search to a particular city, try the local chamber of commerce and government sites on the internet. There you can find anything from crime statistics to predatory offender information to property values (as determined by local tax authorities). Do some Google maps runs and Bird's Eye views of a few properties of interest (on Trulia or other Real Estate search sites) in neighborhoods you find attractive or conveniently located to your future workplace, parks, shopping, etc... If schools are important to you (children now or planning ahead) reference the wealth of information normally available about individual school districts (and individual schools).
Once you have an idea of what LOOKS good to you, seek the help of a local Realtor and expand your knowledge with that individual's input about current market trends, home values, and the amenities offered in various neighborhoods. If you have the opportunity, casually interview some locals as well - they will certainly be able to tell you the good and bad, and most will be happy to share their opinions!
You sound like a Buyer's Agent dream client - you are willing to do your homework and have cash reserves to make the purchase process a bit easier. Find someone who's personality fits your own and who knows the area well and - best of luck!