Aerial photo of an American suburban neighborhood with a tilt-shift effect at sunset

There are many ways to try out a neighborhood and research its features before you move. (Getty Images)

Your budget, where you work and the spots you frequent are all factors in determining where you’ll live next. But what if your budget or expected commute has you checking out streets, boroughs or districts you’re not familiar with?

To make your move a smart one, it’s important to figure out if the neighborhood you're considering will be a good fit in terms of walkability, safety and other factors.

[Read: The Guide to Making and Accepting an Offer on a Home]

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to try out a neighborhood and research its features before you make an offer on a home or sign a lease. Here’s how to vet a neighborhood before you move:

Your real estate agent is a valuable resource, so don’t be afraid to ask questions about the neighborhood you’re visiting. In many cases, your agent will want to drive you through the neighborhoods you’re considering to give you a bit of an insider’s tour and discuss pros and cons.

“A seasoned real estate agent will hopefully be really, really honest with the first drive-through of the neighborhood,” says Tracy McLaughlin, a real estate broker for The Agency’s Marin County, California, offices, and author of “Real Estate Rescue.”

There are, however, specific questions that a real estate agent, landlord or property manager cannot answer due to guidelines set by the Fair Housing Act, originally passed in 1968. Housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability is prohibited.

Beyond references to these protected classes, an agent or landlord is prohibited from steering a person toward or away from specific properties and neighborhoods based on one of the classes that Fair Housing defines. "That may include providing information that steers consumers either with the intent to discriminate or the policy or practice that has the effect of discriminating," explains Morgan Williams, general counsel for the National Fair Housing Alliance.

As a result, a real estate agent should never answer a question like, "Which neighborhood has the lowest crime?" because it could be a veiled reference, intentionally or not, to the racial makeup of the neighborhood. If you are curious about crime statistics, school information or median income, that's information you'll need to look up yourself and consider carefully because the data may not fairly represent the neighborhood.

It's a good idea to visit the neighborhood a few times before you make a decision, and do so at different times of the day. "I recommend going on weekends and at night to get an idea of what the area is like when you will be home," Jayde David, a Realtor with eXp Realty in the Baltimore area, wrote in an email. "If it's Wednesday evening and the neighbors are having a party all night is that something you would be comfortable with? If not we need to look at another area."

You may find that the traffic picks up in the late afternoon, or that the sun doesn’t reach your prospective side of the street until late morning, keeping temperatures low. In the evenings, are people out and about, or do they seem to stay inside?

“If no one is on the street after dark, it’s not necessarily a bad sign. But if people are outside walking, running or biking, it’s a strong sign that they feel safe,” wrote Danielle Samalin, CEO of Framework, an online platform focused on empowering homeowners, in an email.

While you’re exploring the neighborhood, try greeting people who are out. Ask if they live nearby and what they like or dislike about the area. You may hear some honest opinions, ranging from how frequently a neighbor's dog gets out and roams front yards to information about an annual block party when everyone gets together.

“Usually the neighbors will tell you the complete truth,” McLaughlin says.

[Read: Easy Virtual Tools for Homebuyers]


Take a look at real estate information sites like Zillow, Redfin, realtor.com and Trulia and see how many houses on your potential street are currently for sale or rent, as well as recent sales. Too many may indicate a possible drop in property values, while very few could be a sign that the area is full of long-term residents.

Consumer-facing real estate sites won’t always have a full picture of real estate deals and listings, so be sure to ask your real estate agent about activity in the area. Your agent may also be able to provide a more nuanced analysis of what’s going on and if there are signs your future home’s value could drop.

When you visit a neighborhood, see how walkable your home would be to shops, restaurants, businesses and the local school to see if it's possible to get around on foot rather than in a car. If you have to drive everywhere or cross busy streets with few pedestrian accommodations, you may find the dependence on a car frustrating.

Also consider how close you would be to entertainment options. In Austin, Texas, for example, living outside the city center doesn’t necessarily mean you'll miss out on activities. Romeo Manzanilla, president of the Austin Board of Realtors, notes that shopping centers, live music venues and access to hiking and biking trails are becoming more frequent in the metro area’s outer suburbs.

“We’re seeing people leave the downtown area for the suburbs, and they’re not going to miss the entertainment opportunities,” Manzanilla says.

Many established neighborhoods have regular community meetings to discuss local policy, issues and plans for public events. In other cases, the city council member representing the area may host town halls or forums to hear from residents. Local schools often host PTA meetings for residents to attend as well.

By attending any of these meetings, you can learn more about how neighborhood officials handle public complaints and work toward cohesion.

If the neighborhood you’re considering has a name, look into the history of the area. Historic neighborhoods may have websites set up by local historians. The city’s historical society may have a timeline about key events, and you may also find books or other publications that highlight significant events.

[Read: Everything You Need to Know About a Pending Home Sale]

You may also want to know some of the hard data you won’t necessarily get insight into by visiting your future neighborhood a few times.

But when you look at data about a neighborhood, school or city, always take it with a grain of salt. Data collection, algorithms and statistics, particularly when it comes to crime data or predictions, may carry a bias that isn’t obvious or explained.

"Crime is top of mind for almost everyone when they think about moving to a new neighborhood. The idea of being a crime victim is frightening and it distorts the importance of crime relative to other neighborhood safety considerations such as traffic, for example. Widely referenced crime data can be misleading," Samalin says.

David notes that safety is the No. 1 topic she gets questions from clients about regarding living in Baltimore, and attributes many misconceptions to misleading crime reports and TV shows like HBO's "The Wire." To provide a more accurate portrait of the area, she directs them to Baltimore-specific websites, like LiveBaltimore.com and HealthyNeighborhoods.org. "These sites offer insights to different neighborhoods in the city as well as possible grants (and) loans the area may offer," David says.

Here are a few websites that can help provide you with more information about a neighborhood:

  • City-Data.com. Here, you'll find statistics including demographic makeup and median household income down to the neighborhood level for many cities in the U.S.
  • Walk Score. See a walkability rating for a neighborhood based on whether it's possible to visit stores and restaurants on foot, along with separate scores for bike-friendly neighborhoods and those with ample public transit options. David points out that an individual's preference for being able to easily get places on foot helps narrow down a home search at the start, so the walk score may be something you discuss with your agent early on.
  • CrimeMapping.com. This police report-tracking service shows on a map the different crimes reported in a neighborhood or city.
  • The Opportunity Atlas. This organization examines the roots of affluence and poverty, looking at long-term census data, tracking a wide variety of details, from income to how far a person travels to go to work. “It isn’t designed for house hunters, but if you have the patience you can learn an incredible amount about a community,” Samalin says.
  • NeighborhoodScout. Find data on current real estate activity, neighborhood demographics, crime stats, school information and forecasts for the local housing market.
  • Local school zone locator. Most school districts provide easy interactive map tools to tell you what elementary, middle and high schools your address matriculates to. A simple Google search of "school zone locator" and your school district should direct you to the tool through either the city, county or school board website.
  • Nextdoor. This social media website and app is dedicated to connecting people who live near each other. “Nextdoor gives you a sense of how the neighbors talk to one another and the overall atmosphere,” McLaughlin says. Of course, not everything on Nextdoor is positive – you may see some petty complaints, and heated political debates get out of hand. The service can show the best and worst of the neighborhood and help you determine whether it's for you.

10 Terms First-Time Homebuyers Must Know

Know the lingo.

Young couple gets house key to their first home from their realtor.

(iStockPhoto)

It’s spring and the start of the home-selling and buying season, and you're probably already starting to see the “For Sale” signs posted in yards as well as online advertisements beckoning prospective homebuyers. But before you allow yourself to be beckoned, it would behoove you to familiarize yourself with the following 10 terms – especially if this is your first time making one of the biggest purchases of your life.

Fixed-rate mortgage

Fixed-rate mortgage

House document with keys and pen

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This means the interest rate you pay on your home loan won't change. Over the years, your mortgage payment will likely change some – property taxes will likely rise, your homeowners insurance might climb or fall, or you might shed your PMI (a term we’ll come back to). But generally, if you have a fixed-rate mortgage, your monthly mortgage payment won't change much over the years.

Adjustable-rate mortgage

Adjustable-rate mortgage

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Also known as an ARM, this is essentially the opposite of a fixed-rate mortgage. You'll have a fixed rate for several years, maybe five or 10, and then the interest rate adjusts according to the fully indexed interest rate, often the prime rate, which is what banks charge their most creditworthy customers. So while your interest rate and payments will likely be lower in the beginning than those of the homeowner with the fixed-rate mortgage, hope that interest rates remain low throughout the life of your loan. As interest rates climb, so too will your own interest rate and monthly payments.

Prequalified

Prequalified

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This can be a confusing term, mostly because homebuyers tend to mix it up with preapproved, says Rick Hogle, chief strategic officer at Supreme Lending, a mortgage company in Dallas. If your lender tells you that you're prequalified for a house, that's a good start – but you're still a long way from being a homeowner. "Prequalification requires less documentation," Hogle says. "It provides a general idea of the loan amount in which a homebuyer might qualify." This way, you can start looking for a home and have a sense of what type of house you can afford. Preapprovals require the submission of many more documents, such as pay stubs, bank statements and tax returns.

Conventional loans

Conventional loans

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These are the typical loans that many people, but not all, apply for when they want a mortgage. "Those with low credit scores usually won't qualify for conventional loans," says Passard Dean, professor of accounting at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida. "In the past, you were also required to put a down payment of at least 5 percent. However, with the new guidelines from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, you can now put a down payment as low as 3 percent. These loans generally require a credit score of above 650.

Federal Housing Administration loan

Federal Housing Administration loan

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Have poor credit? You'll probably get one of these, also known as FHA loans. “These are excellent for first-time homebuyers with subprime credit scores," Dean says. "In addition to more relaxed credit scores and lower upfront costs, the down payment can be as low as 3 percent."

Appraisal

Appraisal

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This is an estimate that determines what your property is worth. Banks need homes to be appraised, in part, so they don't lend you, say, $300,000 for a house that's only worth $175,000. After all, if you can't pay the loan, the bank will send you packing and will sell the home. But most people won't buy a $175,000 home for $300,000, and knowing that, the bank doesn't want to lend you more than your house is worth.

Private mortgage insurance

Private mortgage insurance

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This is a monthly insurance payment you'll have to pay if the down payment on your house is less than 20 percent of the appraised value or sale price. If you don't want to pay the PMI fee – which often ranges from .03 to 1.15 percent of the original loan, divided into 12 monthly payments – you'll have to fork over a bigger down payment or buy a cheaper house. Usually, PMI insurance isn't something you pay forever (it just seems like it, if you have a small down payment). Typically, after your payments reach 20 percent of the value of your home, you stop paying PMI.

Closing costs

Closing costs

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These are fees related to buying a house that your lender charges you, or you rack up from various third parties, such as a home inspector. According to the online real estate database Zillow, expect your closing costs to be 2 to 5 percent of the purchase price of your home. That may sound like a lot, but there are many costs involved in closing the deal, from buying title insurance to paying for points and attorney and surveyor fees.

Points

Points

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One point is a charge equal to 1 percent of the loan amount. So if you're buying a $200,000 house, and a lender is charging you 2 points, that's $4,000. Three points, $6,000. Points are prepaid interest. The more points you pay, the lower your interest rate will be. If you're planning to live in your house a few years, you could make a good argument for not paying points, but if you believe you'll go the distance with a 30-year mortgage, it generally makes financial sense to pay as many points as you can to snag that lower interest rate, which, in the long run, could save you money.

Escrow

Escrow

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This word can be used in a few different ways, but when you think escrow, think of a third, neutral party. For instance, a deposit you make after your offer on a home is accepted would then be put in escrow. Usually you can’t recoup these deposits if you back out of the contract, but if the seller decides to sell the home to somebody else, you’d most certainly get your deposit back. The escrow account keeps your deposit safe so the homeowners don't inadvertently spend your money. You might also hear your lender talking about an escrow account where your property taxes and homeowners insurance go until they're paid.

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Tags: real estate, housing, housing market, moving, renting


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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