The 21st century is in full effect. And that means a couple of things for savvy home buyers who are in the process of vetting prospective neighborhoods. Investigating neighborhood basics like school districts and such is no longer tricky or difficult: there are ample resources online giving detailed information about schools, scores and even parent reviews.
As well, savvy sellers and their agents are more likely now than ever to market amenities like proximity to parks and shopping districts in a home’s marketing materials. In many states, formal reports are now disclosed from every seller to every buyer as a matter of law by third party services with detailed access to information about faultlines, flood zones, landslides, radon gas, airport zones and former military zones that a property might be impacted by, as well as a slew of other environmental hazards that were difficult to investigate in generations past.
While technology and industry developments have supercharged a buyer’s ability to get basic neighborhood need-to-knows, the 21st century has also given rise to entirely new sets of neighborhood assets – and liabilities. Fortunately, the information age has cracked stores of neighborhood data wide open, giving each of us the power to tap into knowledge about our future necks-of-the-woods with a few clicks – knowledge that was inconvenient or impossible to access, even a few years ago.
Here are 7 of those next-gen neighborhood need-to-knows, and the next-gen tools for investigating them:
1. All about crime. Crime rates are essential indicators of neighborhood desirability, although blanket labels of ‘safe’ vs. ‘dangerous’ neighborhoods are outdated and unhelpful, when it comes to directing a house hunt. Most buyers familiar with their towns know on a basic level whether a neighborhood has a reputation for being safe or being crime-riddled. Further, if you are buying on a budget that strictly limits your overall neighborhood options, the black-and-white, safe-or-not dichotomy does nothing to help you make more nuanced decisions about your house hunt.
Now, though, buyers have open access to crime report databases that previously could only be accessed via tedious, time-consuming and generally infeasible hours spent flipping through police records down at the station. And the availability of these records online has empowered much more sophisticated and meaningful ways of sorting this data, for the purposes of the average home buyer.
For example, our interactive crime maps offer heat maps showing the density of crime reports in neighborhoods located in 50 markets across the country. They also allow you to sort by hours, by crime category and by violent vs. non-violent crime – so you know what sorts of crime are committed in your neighborhood at what times of day and you can gauge a non-violent, high-crime area (where you’ll want to keep your car parked in the garage) from a very violent, high-crime area (where you’ll want to watch your back, among other things). Trulia Local makes these nuanced, neighborhood crime insights available to buyers across the nation – along with other neighborhood need-to-knows like school data, commute times and restaurants.
Finally, almost every state now offers a digitized Megan’s Law database, which surfaces information about registered sex offenders and other criminals and where they live. The type and detail of the information varies widely by county and state, but it can be informative to search for the address of a home you’re considering buying and see what sort and number of convicted criminals live within a given geographic radius, before you make your final commitment to a home.
2. Meth labs. These next-gen, interactive reports of crime rates, types, hours and pinpoint locations are uber-useful, but there’s another type of crime-related data that can help protect your family’s day-to-day health: the Drug Enforcement Agency’s database of addresses which have been used as laboratories for making methamphetamine (and other drugs). Fact is, most meth labs are (or were) homes, and its not uncommon for them to be sold to unsuspecting buyers by their former owners’ estates, investment corporations, foreclosing banks and other sellers that (a) might not even know the places were once used as meth labs, and (b) are exempt, legally, from making detailed disclosures to buyers, even if they are aware.
Meth lab properties are often contaminated with flammable, explosive and toxic chemicals that can affect the health of later buyers and residents – even neighbors, depending on the contamination level. Search the DEA database, here, but don’t neglect to Google your target property’s address to determine whether your state or county might also maintain searchable digital databases of meth-contaminated properties.
3. Social connectedness, online and off. On a (much) lighter note, savvy buyers might like to know whether their neighborhoods have next-gen social amenities like block parties, newsletters, email lists, homeowner resources for vendors like child care and handyman services, and even neighborhood-specific social networks:
- Review any HOA disclosures (if relevant), which may contain newsletters and other social information
- Ask your home’s seller and/or the homeowner’s association (HOA) management company,
- Google your neighborhood’s name and peruse the results, and
- Search sites like Facebook, NabeWise and NextDoor to find your target neighborhood’s online social networks, blogs and groups.
4. Technological and communications capabilities. When you’ve lived in one spot for a number of years, it’s easy to take your area’s technological capabilities for granted. For instance your provider(s) cell networks and reception capabilities (including 3G and 4G networks) might allow for incredible reception where you live, but not in another neighborhood across town. In fact, if you’re moving from a an urban area to a more rural one, you might be surprised at how spotty or non-existent cell service still is in some areas. In the same vein, many areas across the country are still waiting for the broadband and fiber optic cable infrastructure development that will allow residents to tap into digital television, phone and internet services.
Technological capabilities – or the lack thereof – are unlikely to be a deal-breaker if you’re planning to buy a home, but they are something that might help you prioritize among multiple neighborhoods or homes you’ve been considering. Getting up to speed on what’s available can help you understand what additional changes you might have to make – and charges you might incur for making them – to optimize your technologies and services once you move. Contact your cell, cable, phone and internet providers to determine what’s available in your neighborhood-to-be; many of the major mobile carriers also have voice, data, 3G and 4G network coverage maps on their websites.
5. Potentially problematic HOA rules and municipal regulations. You might want to build a tall fence for backyard privacy, plant a food garden in your front yard or have bees, goats or other light livestock on your property – but your city’s regulations may or may not allow these things, depending on the zoning of your neighborhood. Similarly, you might want to paint your home a shade that isn’t allowed by the HOA rules, or have more cars than your desired home has “legal” parking spaces – HOA regulations may even go so far as to ban exterior satellite dishes, pets and even some internal home improvements.
Read the HOA rules and regulations disclosed by your next home’s seller very, very thoroughly to understand any such limitations before you buy. And if you’re considering any sort of urban farming or have plans to make major changes to the exterior of your home after closing, you might want to contact the city building and planning department before you remove your contingencies, to see what would and would not be involved in making those changes to that home.
6. Future developments that might affect your ability to enjoy your home. Many states require that sellers disclose any manufacturing, commercial, airport or industrial zones that currently exist near the property. What is less clear to most buyers is the equally important issue of whether there are any proposals currently being considered by the powers that be that would create new zones that fall into these categories – proposals that could very well uptick the traffic, noise, odors and pollution that you’ll have to deal with in the home as time goes on. You should feel free to ask the seller flat out, but here’s where a call to the city and a plain old Google search for the neighborhood names and cross streets can also be helpful, to turn up news reports of relevant proposals and permit requests. Ask your agent for guidance on other local sources you might be able to tap into.
7. Upcoming/proposed special assessments. HOAs can impose special assessments to cover building and common area repairs and upgrades. And some cities,districts, neighborhoods and states vote in special assessments that are added onto local homeowners’ property tax bills for things like first responder services, street lighting, supplemental school funding and the like. Once these things have already been imposed, they are disclosed through title and HOA disclosures, but it’s best to know about them when they’re coming down the pike.
Reviewing the disclosed HOA reserves and financials – as well as recent newsletters and Board meeting minutes – can hip you to upcoming special assessments before they take effect, and paying attention to (or researching) recent local ballot measures can do the same for the governmental special assessments.
By Tara-Nicholle Nelson