Buying a home without researching (and loving) the neighborhood is a bit like getting married after the first or second date -- a serious gamble that pays off at best, and the prelude to a horrible, costly mistake at worst. When the time comes to sink your hard-earned dollars into a down payment on a place to live, you want to be sure that you're making a decision that benefits you today and up to a decade or more down the road.
And knowing you want to buy in one metro area over another isn't enough in this era of hot housing markets and internet listings. You need to narrow it down to a specific neighborhood that fits your lifestyle and your household's future, whether you're a single artist seeking a studio apartment or a family of four hunting a single-family home.
So how do you make sure that the neighborhood where you're about to buy is "the one"? By conducting your research, talking to experts, crunching the numbers, and narrowing down your options until you have a good fit. It might not be the height of romance, but it'll keep you from making a mistake you can't undo for months.
It's absolutely fine to choose a home based on life aspirations or goals that you hope to achieve one day. But the joy and agony of being human is that we can imagine ourselves into almost any situation … whether or not it's realistic for us, in particular, to get there.
Draw up a fantasy list of everything that you want in a neighborhood -- but with a dose of realism in the sense that you're only including features and amenities that you really want, not things that you think you should want.
If you've rented in a few different places in the city, this should help you with your list. Consider what you liked about each place, whether it was the easy access to the best pizza in the district or the fast commute to work.
While you're at it, think about any dealbreakers that emerged while you were moving around as a renter. What did you not like or appreciate about any of your previous neighborhoods? What annoyed you, and what made you grit your teeth and vow to move as soon as possible, if anything?
If you do have kids, then you will need to do an additional layer of research when you're narrowing down your neighborhoods of choice. Test scores only tell part of the story when it comes to any school. Call and visit schools and ask about safety policies, how they manage struggling students, the availability of gifted programs, inclusivity efforts, and any other areas of concern that you might have.
Commerce and traffic
You'll also want to look at public transportation in the neighborhood and how it hooks into the wider city network. Is it relatively easy to get to and from the airport on the train or bus? How about from your prospective neighborhood to significant local landmarks or areas of interest, like arenas, ballparks, music venues, and your workplace? Is there decent public transportation established in your neighborhood? What are the train or subway stops like? How long is the ride to the city center, and how much does it cost?
Just like school ratings, there are a number of platforms that offer crime ratings for different neighborhoods -- and that's a good thing to know when you're about to buy a home.
It's always smart to understand exactly what the maps are showing, and that's especially true for crime ratings. Oftentimes, those ratings are based on crime reports rather than filed charges or convictions secured, so the crime ratings platforms don't always tell the full story. It's not a bad idea to check with any friends who live in the area or a real estate professional to get deeper insights into how safe a neighborhood is.
Spend the night
If you can, it's wise to try to spend at least one night (and preferably closer to a week) in the neighborhood where you want to buy. Find a vacation rental, if possible, so you're not cushioned by the "hotel experience" and can spend the week navigating where to shop for groceries, how you'll get to work, where you can walk the dog, and whether the sounds and smells are welcome or repugnant.
Take walks around the neighborhood to familiarize yourself with where things are and decide whether you love it or loathe it. Maybe being close to a big city park is a dream come true, or maybe you'd rather nestle closer to the nightlife hub. Whatever the case, it's best to figure it out before you've plopped down your earnest money.
And if you can, try to stretch the week for a full seven days so you can experience the neighborhood on weekdays and weekends -- after all, you'll be living there all week, too. Some neighborhoods seem sedate all week long but turn into raucous celebrations for 48 hours every weekend, and you should definitely know that before you move in.
Get the numbers
If you're not sure where to find this information, talk to a local real estate professional. A great agent will be an invaluable resource not only about housing but about the city on the whole! If you agent happens to also be the author of a guidebook to Philly, like Karrie Gavin is, all the better! Click the link to purchase her book on Amazon.com.