Meet the Neighbors
It's not just the house that you want to enjoy. You also want to enjoy the place that you live and that includes the people around you: the community, the local church, the school that your children attend and your neighbors.
How do you know if you are going into a good neighbourhood with good neighbours? A real estate agent can help guide you through some of this information, but you need to be prepared to do some of your own research, too. In general, real estate agents will not pass judgement or "profile" a neighbourhood for you. However, you can ask your agent to point you to good information sources on a neighbourhood. You can then make your own judgement.
Let's say you want to research an area and you aren't working with a specific agent. So, where to start? A good place to begin is with the neighborhood and community associations. You may be able to identify such groups from the local city or municipal website. You may even find that many such community groups actually maintain their own sites.
Within these neighbourhood and community groups you'll find people who are committed to the place that they live. They are likely to be involved with or aware of planning and development in the area as well. Such people can be a fountain of information about the quality and character of the neighbourhood, which can help you make a thoughtful decision about whether you want to buy into this area.
Another good strategy is to actually go to the neighbourhood and drive around. Pay attention to what happens in the area. If possible, go at different times of the day and different days of the week. A very quiet neighbourhood on a weekday could be very noisy on weekends. On the other hand, if you are looking for a bustling area, you might find that there isn't much going on during the week, and that could be a problem. A night visit might show you that streetlights have been left burnt out and unattended. All this may be part of your decision as to whether an area is right for you or not.
Check out the public spaces in the area. Perhaps the house you are interested in is close to a local school. Having a school or college as a neighbor can create special problems related to parking or noise. Before moving to a trendy downtown area, you might assess your tolerance for noise or your comfort level walking outside at night.
You might even consider speaking with people on the street that live in the area. Be prepared for the fact that some will not be too forthcoming with information or might think you a bit odd! However, if you can find a sociable type who is willing to strike up a conversation and tell you if there are troublesome neighbours on the street, you can avoid the worst type of problem - the one that you end up living beside.
Are you concerned about your family's safety and the local crime rates? You might want to rely on more than just the look of the area or the median income to help judge the safety of the neighborhood. The best way to do this is to check with the local police department and ask what the crime trend is for community and seek information about crime trends and "neighborhood watch" programs.
While a comprehensive map and lots of research is certainly useful, nothing beats taking a look with your own eyes. Your drive around the area might reveal a busy business or you might notice that a lot of airplanes always seem to be flying overhead. You might also find that your block is a particularly popular cut-through for commuters rushing into or out of town, which may affect your willingness to let children play outside. Walking or biking is often the very best way to really see if a neighborhood fits your needs. The slower pace allows you to see more. The key is to not only check out a potential house, apartment or rental, but to check out what's around that home, too.
In the end, doing your homework will mean a much smoother transition for you and your family.