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Safe Neighborhood: How to Check It Out Before Buying a Home

Before you buy a new home, you should carefully check out the neighborhood to which you plan to move. To make an informed decision:

  • Know the facts. Learn about the neighborhood’s crime statistics, school quality, road conditions, future development plans, and more.
  • Walk the neighborhood. Visit at different times of day, and strike up conversations with neighbors.
  • Research online. A simple Google Maps search can help you see if there are schools, grocery stores, doctors, transit stops, and more near the home.

The Neighborhood Matters

When you ask a real estate agent the three most important things about any home, she’s likely to reply, “Location, location, location.” But that’s only because “Safe neighborhood, safe neighborhood, safe neighborhood,” doesn’t sound as catchy.

Before you buy a new home, you should carefully check out the neighborhood to which you plan to move. County records, Facebook, Google, Google Earth, and other online resources can all be friends that help you avoid a big mistake.

Questions to Ask

A candidate home’s plot and view make up a big part of the appeal of its location. But its neighborhood can be at least as important.

Are the schools good? Is quality healthcare easily accessible? How long will my commute be? Is crime low, and does the guy next door have a recent arrest for dealing crack from home? Is there a good supermarket close by? How far is the nearest mall? Are there plans to build a highway or airport runway at the end of the backyard?

You need to know the answers to these and other questions.

Walk Before Web

No matter how good your online search skills are, nothing beats exploring the streets around your prospective home on foot. You’ll pick up on details you’d never notice in a car or on Google Street View. And, of course, you can hear and smell things.

Try to visit at different times of the day. Your new neighbor’s kid might get his drum kit out only during the evenings or at weekends. And there might have been a reason the student house on the other side was so quiet on the morning of the open house: Its residents were too hungover to get up after one of their frequent all-night parties.

Walking around also gives you a chance to pick your new neighbors’ brains about what it’s like to live on your next street. Stop to chat, make friends, ask questions and get the skinny.

The Worldwide Web Is Your Oyster

Google Maps might be your natural online starting point. Type in the address of your prospective home, and then click on “Nearby.”

You can then choose which types of places you want to find: restaurants, schools, stores, hospitals, gyms, and so on. If the type of establishment you want to find isn’t on the list presented, type it into the search box, for example, “hospital” or “school.”

By clicking “Directions,” you will be presented with routes, distances, and approximate travel times. If available, you can choose between driving, walking, and public transit.


You can use the school locator page on the U.S. Department of Education website to find a local map showing all the public schools in an area. Click on “school profile” for more details about each.

To find the rankings and ratings of public schools in a district, try


Consumer Reports has a web tool that provides a list of the hospitals in your city, county, or state with rankings and ratings. It also provides information on each facility’s record in certain limited performance categories.

You can find out more about local family doctors (primary care doctors) through patient reviews on Yelp and Angie’s List. However, those aren’t always fair or helpful. Consumer Reports has a useful article on “How to Find a Good Doctor.”


Type your zip code into the CrimeReports website to find recent incidents in that area. You’ll be presented with a map showing pins, which, when clicked, provide more details. And you can refine your search to find older criminal activity.

For details of registered sex offenders living nearby, use the search facility on this U.S. Department of Justice website. You can type in the address of the home you are thinking of buying (or the school your kids will be attending), and discover any such offenders within a radius of up to three miles.

The home

Other sources that can prove worthwhile information are the local courthouse and the offices of the county or city. These can usually provide records on a home going back at least 20 years, including deeds and encumbrances, such as mortgages or other charges.

You can often access these records online. But it’s worth remembering it can take a while to post information to those websites. So don’t rely on their being completely up to date. If you have the time and the proximity, a visit can be better.

Other Resources

For information about the demographics of the area, consult the 2010 U.S. Census through its website. You can drill down through your state to your census division. And that will give you a breakdown of the local population by age, sex, race, ethnicity, and housing status.

Don’t forget to check out local newspapers to get a feel for the place. That can give you real insights into what’s on and what residents are concerned about.

Shortcuts Cost

You can find a shortcut to some of the information above using a website such as Neighborhood Scout. It can also provide you with a detailed analysis of the housing market and home price trends in the area.

However, there is a minimum number of searches you must pay for on the site. So it might be better to use it early in the process when you’re shortlisting neighborhoods. And then only if you’re happy with the price.

Be Realistic

Don’t expect any neighborhood on this side of Alpha Centauri to be perfect. As you know all too well, buying a home is all about trading off things on your wish list.

And that applies to streets and areas, as well as homes. So have realistic expectations when you check out the neighborhood.

What Are Today’s Mortgage Rates?

Regardless of the neighborhood you choose, your home will be more attractive if you pay less to finance it. And that’s possible with today’s low mortgage rates. Just contact several lenders (easy to do right here) for quotes and choose your best offer.

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