How to Inspect Your Future Neighborhood

A Russian proverb goes: "Don't buy the house, buy the neighborhood."

Perhaps the most frequently shirked due-diligence duty by homebuyers is a thorough screening of the prospective neighborhood -- and of the neighbors. While buyers spend countless resources on inspections, radon tests, surveys and appraisals, they too often settle for just a cursory examination of the block that's destined to become their habitat.

There's no comparable research in the United States, but a study by Halifax Home Insurance Co. in Britain said 360,000 Brits moved due to bad neighbors in 2010 -- nearly 1 in 10. The most common complaints were aggressive behavior, excessive noise and unkempt properties.

There's no one-size-fits-all strategy to screening neighborhoods. "Everyone has different things that are important to them," says Sarah Davis, a broker with Partners Realty of California in San Diego. "A yappy dog may really bother one person and another not much at all."

With that caution flag unfurled, we give buyers five "musts" designed to help them answer the question: "How do I inspect a neighborhood?"

Conduct a Criminal Search

Nothing puts fear in a family faster than the discovery of a sex offender on the block. Moreover, sellers and agents in most states aren't obliged to volunteer information about the presence of nearby sex offenders. Ask pointedly if any listed offenders or previously listed offenders dwell in the neighborhood. Then always follow that up with your own search at the National Sex Offender Public Website, NSOPW.gov. Sex offenders have been known to cause more than worry wrinkles and less outside playtime; their presence can depress neighboring home values and dampen resale potential.

Don't overlook other crime either. No matter how bucolic an area appears, some neighborhoods are more prone to break-ins, car thefts and other offenses. For example, subdivisions just off major highways are attractive to thieves because they offer quick getaways. CrimeMapping.com maintains a crime log of most large and mid-size cities and can issue email alerts when a crime occurs in a neighborhood. If your area isn't covered, check with the city to see where you can inspect neighborhood crime records. Ask if the city offers email alerts.

Case the Neighborhood

This requires a different brand of detective work. Most buyers visit prospective neighborhoods only at midday and don't see their complexions change. Inspect the neighborhood at varying hours. Park the car down the street and walk around the block on a Saturday night. Are there any deal breakers such as rowdy neighbors, dogs that bark nonstop, street racing or airplanes flying low overhead?

Other "watch-outs" include unkempt and cluttered lawns, street-corner lurkers, houses with frequent visitors, too few or too many children, strange odors (from a nearby landfill or industry), ear-splitting train horns, ceaseless traffic din from nearby highways, graffiti, bright streetlights or commercial lighting streaming in windows -- and an abundance of homes for sale or in foreclosure. A good agent can produce lists of both. Too many for-sale homes can signify a neighborhood in transition to mostly rentals.

If you feel bold, politely strike up conversations with folks who live on the street and get an earful.

Do Homework on the Neighborhood Schools

Have kids who are in school (or will be)? You'll need to thoroughly vet their future school. Real estate agents might be reluctant to talk much about your school district if it isn't exemplary.

Fortunately, there are online resources. School demographics and student-teacher ratios can be found at the National Center for Education Statistics website, NCES.ed.gov, by clicking on "School Search," while school ratings and reviews can be seen at GreatSchools.org.

There's no substitute, however, for a tour to inspect a school's character, safety and culture. "Ask about class size, enrollment growth and adequate school funding," Davis says. "The quality of the school district has a lot to do with resale value."

Survey for Lot-Line Land Mines

Could your potential new dream home use a new fence? You might hold off on your plans. You'd be shocked to see how many presumed yard boundaries are actually wrong by a few feet or more -- and how many neighbors are primed to call you on that fact if you rub them the wrong way after moving in.

Perhaps worse, some neighbors may try to claim a sliver of your potential land that they've been using for years through a phenomenon called adverse possession (squatter's rights). If there's any lot-line ambiguity whatsoever, go to the township and inspect the property survey, then check it against the property lines. You may want to order a new survey if a wide disparity becomes apparent.

Take a Broader View

See and think beyond your immediate block. That empty lot on the corner entrance to your subdivision looks like a great place for neighborhood touch football or soccer, but it may contain an unsavory surprise: commercial zoning. Instead of just another house, that lot may someday yield a convenience store or fast-food restaurant, with the requisite noise, lighting and traffic. Find out from your agent or the city what's allowed there.

Finally, practice your commute from your prospective neighborhood. A home that's closer to work doesn't necessarily mean a faster drive time because of congested feeder roads and other factors. Study your mass-transit options as well, just in case. Determine if the area's service and leisure options are adequate and close enough for your tastes. "Look into the amenities of the area," Davis says. "See what churches are there or other things that might interest you like cafes, bars and malls."