Anyone with a passion for real estate has likely suffered from neighborhood envy at some point. Whether you were drawn to well-manicured, tree-lined streets or a buzzy corridor of great boutiques and restaurants, your deep desire to call that particular enclave home might have been met with a bit of sticker shock. If your dream neighborhood is everyone's dream neighborhood, price tags will rise to meet the fierce demand.
All is not lost, however. With some diligent research, and the help of a qualified real estate professional, you can likely find a comparable neighborhood that ticks most of your wish list boxes at a lower price point. To help find similar communities, you must first drill down to what you love about your ideal, dream neighborhood. First, think about what makes up a neighborhood in the first place.
Here's what you should consider when evaluating a neighborhood's features:
- Architectural styles and housing
- Terrain and green space
- Local services
Architectural Styles and Housing
A leading component of a neighborhood's character is the architectural styles and housing stock found within. Whether strictly uniform or wildly eclectic, houses make up the aesthetic of an area. And while you may gravitate toward the visual appeal of one type of home, architecture is also often closely tied to a neighborhood's rich history.
Think of the classic brownstones of New York City, the mid-century masterpieces of Los Angeles or the Art Deco buildings of Miami Beach. Each architectural style tells a story about an area's iconic heyday and the current residents' enduring interest in retaining that history. In addition to architecture, the composition of housing stock has a huge impact on a neighborhood's overall ambiance. Blocks and blocks of single-family ranch homes will create a different vibe than a mix of low-rise townhouses and high-rise apartment buildings.
Terrain and Green Space
Whether you dream of hilltop views or a flat, walkable neighborhood, terrain has a lot to do with a neighborhood's overall character. In Los Angeles, for example, you may compare Laurel Canyon with West Hollywood. These two neighborhoods are next door to one another, yet they each have a completely different atmosphere, primarily due to the nature of canyon versus basically flat terrain. In San Francisco, terrain even influences the city's notorious microclimates – differences in elevation and proximity to the water cause weather patterns to differ from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Green space, including municipal parks, undeveloped land and large lots have a huge impact on atmosphere as well. For the best example of that, one only needs to think of the granddaddy of them all: Central Park, which is both a regular spot for local residents to hang out and a tourist destination.
But a large park isn't always required to make green space valuable. Mature sidewalk trees and parkways can also break up an area and make it come to life. The Hudson River Greenway along the Hudson River in Manhattan, for example, has added enormous quality of life value to what used to be a true concrete jungle.
Local services, or a lack thereof, are prime drivers of a neighborhood's energy and activity level. If your dream neighborhood is walkable or car-free, you'll probably love having an array of shops, restaurants and nightlife within blocks of your front door. If peace and serenity are your neighborhood goals, however, you'll want to choose an area that is zoned exclusively for residential use. When assessing the impact local services might have on your quality of life, think not only about the business locations themselves, but also consider vehicle and pedestrian traffic patterns and local parking capacity.
Assessing transportation in and out of your neighborhood is paramount. Make sure you take into consideration your commute to work and school drop-offs, if applicable, plus access to the stores and services you visit most often. Think about if you wish to move about by car, bike, on foot or via public transportation, and closely examine the options for each. What are rush hour traffic or transit conditions like? Your dream neighborhood won't stay dreamy for long if it comes with an awful trip to work.
Now that you've spent some time evaluating which factors make up your coveted dream neighborhood, it's time to narrow down which of those best support your specific lifestyle and needs. Perhaps you adore your dream neighborhood's American Craftsman houses, but wish it had better access to transportation alternatives. Or maybe you'll decide your ideal neighborhood's lively nightlife scene is actually less than ideal for family life.
By combining your wish list with your real life, you'll be in a position to go in search of comparable neighborhoods with great price tags. Take a look at some comparable neighborhood swaps in the nation's top real estate markets:
Brooklyn, New York: Williamsburg to Downtown Brooklyn
Rapidly evolving and vibrant, Downtown Brooklyn is drawing a lot of former Williamsburg residents with its new-construction condos, world-class entertainment venues and perhaps most importantly, its abundant transportation. Closing prices in Downtown Brooklyn average about $50,000 lower than those in Williamsburg.
Los Angeles, California: Silver Lake to Highland Park
Set among winding streets with an eclectic mix of architectural styles, boutiques and an undeniable artsy ambiance, Silver Lake has been the hipster destination of Los Angeles for some time now. Not surprisingly, its home prices match its popular reputation. On the other side of the Interstate 5 freeway, however, Highland Park stands ready to take the hipster crown with its dining scene and vibrant arts community. While the area's home prices have been skyrocketing as of late, Highland Park home values still hover about $300,000 below those in Silver Lake.
Brooklyn, New York: Cobble Hill to Clinton Hill
For New Yorkers who covet the breathtaking brownstones and family-friendly vibe of Cobble Hill, Clinton Hill is a solid alternative. Residents of Clinton Hill rave about the close-knit community and great parks, and prices for townhouses in the area average up to $1 million less than in pricier Cobble Hill.
San Francisco, California: Cow Hollow to Glen Park
Cow Hollow is among San Francisco's "it" neighborhoods thanks to its dining, nightlife and proximity to the waterfront and the Presidio national park at the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Less than four miles south, San Franciscans with an eye for value are checking out Glen Park. This enclave offers a small commercial district, plenty of charm and a convenient location nestled between Glen Canyon Park and the Interstate Interstate 280 Freeway. The Glen Park Bay Area Rapid Transit station keeps the neighborhood's location convenient, and home prices run about $500,000 less than in Cow Hollow.
A dream neighborhood is highly personal, but there are plenty of them to be found if you know where to look. Even if you have to make a few minor concessions for the sake of budget, you can often make up for those small sacrifices in the increased value your home might experience as the neighborhood develops.
Are these must-haves on your list?
One of the first steps you take when deciding you want a new home is determining what you need in order to be happy there. The list of your must-haves can get long, and you reasonably can’t expect to find a house that perfectly matches all your criteria. “Someone has a list of 10 things – if they can find a house that has seven or eight of those, they’re doing pretty good,” says Jeff Plotkin, a Texas-licensed Realtor, attorney, certified public accountant and vice president of Habitat Hunters Inc. in Austin, Texas. Deciding what needs win out in your next home search can be tough, but there are a few key features and amenities many buyers seem unwilling to live without.Right in your price range
Right in your price range
Being able to afford your new home is a given, but buyers are often faced with having to choose between stretching their budget to have the master suite they want or having more reasonable monthly mortgage payments. Price often wins out in the end – you’re less likely to enjoy that master suite if you’re eating soup and foregoing vacations for the next five to 10 years to pay it off. In the 2018 National Association of Realtors Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends report, home affordability was one of the three most important factors for respondents who recently purchased a home – behind only quality of the neighborhood and a location's convenience to work.In your preferred location
In your preferred location
Homebuyers care a lot about being able to get from point A to point B – as well as points C, D and E. Your future neighborhood can dictate what school your kids go to, how long it takes to get to work and how easy it is to stop at the grocery store when you forgot an ingredient for dinner. Plotkin says buyers put a lot of stress on where the house is, rather than what’s in the house itself. They’re looking for “proximity to schools, shopping, entertainment, public transportation,” he says.Interior over curb appeal
Interior over curb appeal
A handsome exterior keeps potential buyers from quickly driving away, but insight from new construction marketing site HomLuv.com reveals that it’s the interior that most often serves as the deal-maker. HomLuv’s website allows homebuyers to begin their search for a new home from the room they care about most, whether that’s the kitchen, living room or master bathroom. The one part of the house people don’t seem too worried about? Outside. In the roughly two months since HomLuv launched, “no one has chosen to look at exteriors first,” says Mark Law, vice president of product management for BDX, a home builder marketing company and parent company of HomLuv.The right number of bedrooms
The right number of bedrooms
While the interior of the home allows more wiggle room to compromise on your needs, there are some details that buyers must have. The right number of bedrooms would be the big one. Family expansion is often a primary reason homeowners start looking for a new house, so leaving out that extra room would defeat the entire purpose of the sale. According to the NAR report, 85 percent of homes purchased by respondents in 2017 had three bedrooms or more.Window treatments for reference
Window treatments for reference
Staging matters in a home. As much as we think we can picture how a vacant house will look with our own furnishings and decor, at the end of the day we need some suggestions. Law says builders will include big picture windows in bedrooms or over the tub in a master bathroom to let in natural light, but if the photos show the space without curtains or blinds, house hunters will inevitably see a design flaw. “They’ll say, ‘I’m not an exhibitionist,’” he explains. To avoid turning homebuyers off, window treatments should be included in listing photos and for home tours.Move-in ready
The condition of the home you shop for often goes hand in hand with your budget and the neighborhood you hope to live in. If your budget is at the lower end of the price range in the hottest community in town, you’ll likely find yourself buying a house that needs a little love. If your budget doesn’t restrict it, chances are you’ll have your pick of properties that have been turned by real estate investors. “The [buyer] demand is for 100 percent move-in ready condition,” says Bobby Montagne, CEO of Walnut Street Finance, a private money lender focused on home flipping in markets in Virginia, North Carolina and the District of Columbia metro area.Possible to picture your vision
Possible to picture your vision
Even if you’re one of the detractors who prefers a fixer-upper, it’s still necessary to be able to envision how the space will look once you’ve added your personal touches. Based on reactions from HomLuv users, details as small as the cabinet color in a photo can change the way a person thinks about a house. Law says he’s found preferences differ from region to region – darker cabinets may see more love in the South, while in California the preference is for white kitchen cabinets. “You could offer a free puppy and free pots and pans with the house, but if the cabinets are dark they still don’t want it,” he says.Warranty available
For newly built homes and those that have been recently flipped with significant work, you want to know that the professionals involved stand by their work. New construction homes often come with a warranty from the builder or the option to get a third-party warranty, and you should ask the investors involved with a flip for the same level of protection. “A good builder [or] a good flipper does not have a problem with that,” Montagne says. If an issue arises within the life of the warranty related to the workmanship, you can rest easy knowing you’re covered financially for the repairs.Potential for value growth
Potential for value growth
Your home isn’t just where you’ll live – it’s also an investment. There are a few easy decisions you can make that reduce the chances of losing out on potential growth in value over time, whether that means buying in a neighborhood where home values are steadily growing, finding a home in a desirable school district or avoiding living next to a strip mall. “When you’re buying a house, you’re not only buying it for yourself, you’re buying it for resale,” Plotkin says. “So most people are not going to want to back up to commercial [property] or a busy road.”Read More
Corrected on April 1, 2019: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the location of the Hudson River Greenway.
Larson has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Real Deal and other top-tier outlets for her industry insights and expertise. Recognized among her peers for her eye for design, she has bought, renovated and sold apartments and homes in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and Nantucket, providing her an acute insight into the needs of buyers and sellers alike.
Lisa holds a Master's degree in History and was a member of the Division I cross-country and track teams at the University of California, Berkeley. Larson also remains actively involved with various charitable foundations, neighborhood associations and at both of her children's schools, and serves as a director on the board of the USA Track & Field Association.
Teresa Mears | May 3, 2019
Conventional wisdom says 20%, but you can buy your first home with much less down.