How to Choose a Home You'll Love, Part 1

When we decide to buy a house, the first thing we feel is the kind of giddy excitement of childhood Christmas morning. But as we move forward in the process, the sheer volume of decisions we have to make can overwhelm us. Just spending a few hours looking through MLS listings of homes for sale can make us wonder how we’ll ever settle on one place. What area do we want? What kind of house? What features matter most? Are we big yard people or do we prefer a low maintenance patio? Are we big city people or do we want the country? With so many choices, how can we ever actually choose?

ZipCode’s here to help. We’ve broken the “how to choose the right house” into two categories, each important, but each distinct. This way, the choices you’ll make are organized and systematic- taking some of the stress out of buying a home and bringing back the excitement you felt when you first decided to buy in the first place. Part 1, today, is all about choosing the right neighborhood. Then, in Part 2, we’ll focus on choosing the right home in that neighborhood.

And so, without further ado…

How to Choose Your Ideal Neighborhood

Use What You Know Already

Obviously, you know yourself best. If you’re in love with the culture and energy of a city, you know you want to live in one. If you want lots of land and quiet nights, you’re looking in small towns, suburbs and the country. If you have kids, you’re thinking about where you can find the best schools and resources for families. Your first assignment in choosing a home is to make a list of your personal needs: divide what you want into two categories

1) Must have

2) Would like to have

Now, look at the “would like to have” list and circle things that are actually “must haves” and move them to the right list. What you’re left with is places you can compromise: Perhaps, you now recognize you can give up an ocean view if you’re within walking distance of the beach. Or, you realize you cannot give up easy access to public transportation, even if you find a place with a garage, because you’re committed to driving less. Now you know, broadly, what area will serve you best. Now it’s time to pick the best neighborhood within that area.

Use What Others Can Teach You

While the first part of picking the right neighborhood is all about introspection, the second part is all about reaching out. You’ll need your agent, your potential neighbors, local newspapers and some good old fashioned legwork in making this decision.

1. Use your Realtor’s Knowledge

Agents have more information readily available to them than you do, even if you’re extremely Internet savvy or have the time to search through property records in City Hall. Your Realtor will run "comps" to determine the selling history of other homes in the neighborhood, and can chart out information that shows you whether property values have risen or if they've been declining—information you need in feeling sure about your investment in a home.

Agents may also know of businesses, construction, transportation projects, or schools that are scheduled to come to your neighborhood in the future. These can be excellent signs of a growing neighborhood (and with them, growing property values) or they can be red flags: strip club being built? A factory using a lot of chemicals? Knowing what’s coming can be as important as knowing what’s already there. Find an agent who can give you this insight here.

2. Use those Potential Neighbors

Yes, it’s weird to “interview” strangers to see if they suit you as neighbors. We don’t recommend you approach people this way. But a simple self-introduction, including the fact that you’re considering moving into this particular house, is a perfectly natural way to start a dialogue with people you may soon be living next to. Ask them what they like about the neighborhood, or if there’s anything you should know about it that the seller isn’t likely to tell you. No one knows the neighborhood better than someone living there, and no one will be more honest than someone with no stake in whether or not you move in.

3. Use your eyes, ears, and nose!

Walk around your potential neighborhood morning, afternoon, and at night. What do you see, hear, and smell? Do you feel safe in the daylight as well as the dark? Are nearby streets equally appealing or do you feel threatened just be turning the corner? Is there a party house blaring music on the weekdays or weekends? Give this detective work a full week if you want a complete picture of the neighborhood’s quality.

4. Check the demographics

You can find out if your neighborhood is more renter than owner--something that is sometimes considered less desirable because of the implied transience and with it, the perception of diminished investment in the community. Neighborhoods with a greater percentage of owners are often considered more stable and thus, more desirable. Of course, in major cities like New York,Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, the cost of living is so high that renters typically outnumber buyers, so this notion isn't always true. The highly local knowledge of this kind of data analysis calls for a local expert—your agent.

You can also find out, thanks to the Feds, the education level, economic profile, and general occupations of the people around you: not because you use this information to judge people, but because you may want people of similar background and interests as you; or, you may want a community very different than the one you’ve been renting in, one that challenges you to grow. Such information is recorded in the US Census and in local city/county records.

That information, of course, is a strong indicator of how smart this potential investment would be for you. A Realtor, again, can be helpful here as well.

5. Check the quality of local schools. ZipCode has good information on this issue, plus school district ratings are readily available on the Internet, but in case you can’t find your nearest school’s information or want a more local picture, talk to the local people. If children in your prospective neighborhood don't attend local schools, that's a red flag you shouldn't ignore. But if the schools enjoy good ratings and attendance, your property value, even if you don’t have kids yourself, maintains or (hopefully) grows much more steadily than areas with poor schools. Once you decide on a school district, ZipRealty allows you to search for homes near that district in our online home search tools. Just chose your location and modify your search parameters to listings near those schools you desire.

Taking the steps can help you make the most informed choice possible about whether a neighborhood is a good fit right for you and your family. And though you may feel overwhelmed, you have to remember, to paraphrase a famous song, that somewhere there’s a place for you, one that you’ll enjoy for years to come.

Stay tuned for advice on how to pick your ideal home in our next blog!