20 Tips for Buying a Home in the Best Location, Location, Location

Buying in the right neighborhood is critical to profiting from your investment as well as feeling at home. Here's how to tell if you're choosing wisely.

A great neighborhood sells a home, real estate agents say. It also helps your home hold value and makes it easy to sell when you decide to move on.

With all the pressure and excitement of home shopping, how can you know if a neighborhood is truly great? Here are 20 clues that help you determine if you have the right neighborhood:

1. It meets your specs

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Make a list of what you want and don’t want in a neighborhood, and shop for those qualities.

Describing his ideal neighborhood, Jay Walljasper, author of “The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Placemaking,” says he looks for “the invincible spirit of neighborliness [that’s] apparent even to a casual visitor.”

But the concept of what’s ideal varies. Your ideal could be a close-knit community with trees, playgrounds and great schools. Mine might be a downtown block of clubs, shops and condos.

2. You like what you hear

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Become an expert on the neighborhood that interests you. Get a feel for it by attending open houses, walking the neighborhood’s blocks, spending time in restaurants and coffee shops, and looking for community gardens.

Have your eye on a specific property? Knock on doors and chat with neighbors on that street. Ask everyone who’ll talk with you about the crime, noise, traffic, neighborhood issues and general pros and cons.

3. You can get a latte

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Upscale chains and independent retailers are signs a neighborhood is well-established or on the way up. These businesses signal a degree of affluence. Also, they’ve typically done market research to assure themselves the neighborhood is stable and worth the investment.

4. You see home improvements

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Especially in warm months, look for activity that shows owners are keeping up or investing in their properties. Improvements like new gutters, painting, re-roofing, gardening and landscaping, replacement windows, and new fences and decks tell you they have pride in their homes.

5. Neighbors are organized

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Block watches and neighborhood meetings are signs of a tight community. If you find a neighborhood group, attend a meeting or two to meet people and ask questions. Subscribe to any neighborhood newsletters.

6. People are out on the streets

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Seeing people on sidewalks or children walking to school and playing in parks tells you that they feel safe. An article at Veterans United Network asks:

“Are there people sitting on their porches? Walking dogs? Taking their kids on a walk? If residents are willing to get out and walk around the neighborhood, that’s a good sign of its vitality and safety.”

7. It passes muster after dark

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Don’t think you know a place if you’ve only seen it in the middle of a weekday. Return repeatedly, at night and on weekends, to get a realistic picture.

8. Crime numbers are low

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Don’t buy into a neighborhood without checking its crime statistics. Check municipal police department websites for statistics or search local newspaper sites.

9. School test scores are strong

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Where school test scores are strong, home prices are high. Search the GreatSchools website for ratings of schools in the neighborhood you’re considering. The nonprofit’s ratings are based on academic data such as standardized test scores.

10. It’s walkable

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Do cars dominate? Or do sidewalks and streets encourage pedestrians and bicyclists? Sidewalks wide enough for outdoor cafes, benches and strolling give a place a neighborly feel.

Look up an address or ZIP code on the Walk Score website or mobile app to obtain a “walkability” rating for neighborhoods or cities. Scores range from zero (“car dependent”) to 100 (“walker’s paradise”). They are based on walking distances to area amenities, population density and road metrics like block length.

Also check out:

11. Bus stops abound

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Can you easily find buses, subways and rail lines? Homes with easy access to public transit fetch higher prices than similar homes without it, says a 2013 study commissioned by the American Public Transportation Association and the National Association of Realtors. It found that the values of homes near “high-frequency” public transit fared about 42 percent better, on average, during the past recession.

But don’t get too close. Locations adjacent to rail lines and bus stops lose value, Portland real estate broker Rob Levy told Bankrate.

12. It’ll work for you for 5 to 7 years

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So, a hip, edgy, gentrifying downtown district is your dream location right now? But will it work later, if you want children? Or if you change jobs? Don’t count on being able to sell and move quickly.

A young couple I spoke to during the recession had bought a condo in what they hoped was an up-and-coming neighborhood. After a while, though, they grew tired of hearing gunshots at night. When she became pregnant, they felt stranded. They wanted to move but could not because their home was worth less than they had paid.

The lesson: Make sure the neighborhood suits your needs for at least the next five years.

13. Ownership is high

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Neighborhoods with high homeownership rates are more stable. However, there are exceptions. For example, you can expect renters to outnumber buyers in expensive places like New York City and San Francisco.

Typically, renters are more mobile than homeowners. Longtime residents watch out for one another, making for a safer community.

Statistics on homeownership in neighborhoods can be hard to find, although some real estate agents may have them. You can get a sense, though, by asking agents and locals about the renter-owner balance. Also, watch for apartment complexes that dominate a neighborhood, or large numbers of “for rent” signs.

14. Homes sell quickly

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Fast turnaround of homes for sale indicates a neighborhood in hot demand. A real estate agent can run “comps” (short for “comparables” or “comparable market analyses”) to tell you how quickly homes are selling.

Other clues to a neighborhood in demand include employers moving in with new jobs, a growing population and a limited supply of homes for sale.

15. Homes hold value

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In the housing crash of a decade ago, home values held up better in some neighborhoods than others. You can find historical sale prices in your county’s property tax records. Many counties put these online. Or ask your real estate agent for neighborhood sales trends.

If you’re considering a bargain home in a neighborhood of foreclosures, consider whether future home buyers would want this neighborhood when you are ready to sell. Even if you don’t care about school quality or how many playgrounds are nearby, the next buyers of your home probably will.

16. The commute is doable

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Homes located close to major employers and in city centers are in high demand.

While most American commuters are still driving to work every morning, the pattern is shifting — with millennial and Generation X workers leading a trend toward public transportation, walking and other alternatives, according to a 2014 report by the Brookings Institution.

“The Driving Boom — a six-decade-long period of steady increases in per-capita driving in the United States — is over,” said a 2013 transportation report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit advocacy group also known as U.S. PIRG.

17. City services are good

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Is the trash picked up? Are streets paved and well-maintained? Beware of broken streetlights, cracked sidewalks and vacant homes with cracked windows and an overgrowth of weeds.

18. You see plenty of churches

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You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that churches, mosques and synagogues are signs of community strength and evidence that residents are connected and invested.

19. It has police and fire stations

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Find the nearest fire and police stations and fire hydrants. Nearby public safety services add to a sense of neighborhood security. Also, a firehouse nearby might mean lower homeowners insurance premiums.

20. (Good) change is coming

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Major economic development can change neighborhoods dramatically. According to Trulia:

“From Google and Microsoft building cloud storage data centers in Des Moines to a new light rail station going live in Denver, one large-scale employer or infrastructure development can be a very early, very strong sign that an area will see its real estate fortunes rise.”

Do you have other hints to add to this list? Share them with us in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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