When you’re in the market for a new place to live, finding the right neighborhood is everything. But in our current state, with shelter-in-place orders in full effect in many areas (and mere common sense limiting people’s excursions), scoping out a new neighborhood can be a little more challenging. But with some online detective work and the right tools, you can learn a lot about a neighborhood without leaving your home.
That’s because you’re not the first one to consider buying a home without being able to pound the pavement personally.
“As buyer’s agents, we will often shoot video of the neighborhood and/or home for our out-of-area clients,” says Katie Wethman, a real estate agent with the Wethman Group at Keller Williams in McLean, VA. “We also have video streaming apps like FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom to bring them with us.”
Even though you won’t be able to pop in to a local coffee shop or take a leisurely stroll down Main Street, exploring a neighborhood in the time of coronavirus is possible. So let your fingers do the walking—on your laptop—and get to digging. Here’s how to start your research.
1. Check out neighborhood publications and local social media
An active neighborhood community will sometimes have a print publication or local social media groups that connect residents. These can provide information on local events and activities that will give you a better feel for the neighborhood. For example, Carlsbad, CA, has a local publication called Carlsbad Magazine, which covers all of the cultural happenings in North San Diego County, as well as a Facebook page.
Browse Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for groups or accounts that document what’s going on in the neighborhood where you’re interested in moving. You can even interact with locals in the community who can give you their opinions of their locale.
2. Take a walk with Google
Want to take a stroll around your potential new neighborhood without leaving the couch?
“Google Street View is a great way to ‘walk’ the street and neighborhood virtually,” says Wethman.
Every listing on realtor.com features a link to the Google Street View for that address.
Another way to access Google Street View is to go to google.com/maps, type in the address of the house you’re interested in, and click on the photo of the property in the menu to the left of the map. If Google Street View is available for that address, you should be able to click and drag the image to move down the street.
“Search engines like Google also let you filter for videos when you search the neighborhood name,” says Wethman. “Try adding ‘review’ to your search terms, and also ‘neighborhood association’ or ‘homeowners association’ for better results.”
3. Browse websites with neighborhood data
You want to gather as much information as possible on your next neighborhood, and there are a lot of websites that can help you do that.
City-Data provides detailed city profiles about everything from cost of living to weather to average home prices, and its forums give useful insight from community locals.
Plug in your ZIP code at AreaVibes to get a livability score and help narrow down the best places to live.
Yelp provides not only reviews on local cafes, restaurants, and nightlife, but also unfiltered reviews from local residents.
4. Search other real estate listings
To learn about the typical architectural styles and ages of homes in a neighborhood, browse online listings on sites like realtor.com. Is the neighborhood full of ’50s ranch homes or hundred-year-old Victorians? Looking at the homes for sale will clue you in.
5. Call a real estate agent
It’s also a good idea to get in touch with a tech-savvy real estate agent—and these days, that’s most of them.
“A real estate agent can help by using technology to test-drive the neighborhood for you. This can easily be done by making a video of the neighborhood and sharing it with you,” says John Myers, a real estate agent with Myers & Myers Real Estate in Albuquerque, NM.
Myers says he has helped a lady from New York City purchase a home in Albuquerque by using a video calling app called Duo.
If you’ve identified a home you’re interested in, contact the listing agent for more information about the neighborhood. The pro will be sure to have an insider’s perspective on the area and extensive knowledge on homes there.
6. Investigate schools and educational data
Relocating with your family? Then you will want to research schools in the area. A good resource is GreatSchools, which provides data on K-12 schools and reviews from parents. Areas with great schools typically maintain property values, and its neighborhoods are highly coveted.
And if you want to research education statistics, U.S. News & World Report has rankings of high schools with data on more than 23,000 public high schools in all 50 states.
7. Check crime rates
Safety is a priority for both buyers and renters, and crime rates can give you a picture of how safe or dangerous a neighborhood is. Low crime rates are not only safer but can also help keep property values high.
Websites such as CrimeReports can provide crime data from law enforcement agencies.
To see if there are registered sex offenders living nearby, type the address of your potential new home in the National Sex Offender Registry’s online search tool.
8. Plan your daily commute
Wethman also suggests getting a feel for the neighborhood by monitoring traffic and your potential work commute.
“I recommend people ‘test-drive’ the commute using commuting tools that predict traffic like Waze or Google Maps,” says Wethman.
These tools will predict the level of traffic during your commute hours and give you an idea of how long it’ll take to get to work. Realtor.com also offers a similar commute time feature on every home listing.
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