Before Buying a Home, Research the Neighborhood

Five tips to size up a street before you stake your claim and sign a mortgage.
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These days, it doesn't matter whether you're shopping in Manhattan or Monmouth County, N.J., the warm shores of Palm Beach, Fla., or the cold rocky coast of Seaside, Ore., if you're buying, you'll find a real estate deal.

However, it's not enough just to buy a house in a favorable Zip code. Such simplicity may have been fine when sellers had the advantage and could take their time contemplating all of the bids once their properties hit the multiple listing service. Now buyers have the position of strength, which means you can usually afford to take some time to think through your options on a house before signing any deal.

One of the key elements outside of whether the house and the land it sits on are right for you is the neighborhood. You and your family may love the home with its large bedrooms, plentiful storage and park-like vacant land outside your back fence. But when property values go up again, will the owner of that vacant property be inclined to build a condo overlooking your property?

Here are five last-minute considerations before signing that sales agreement.

Walk the Walk:

Take a walk around the neighborhood, at two or three different times of day and do so on both a weekday and a weekend. Are people tending to gardens? Are children playing outside? Are neighbors chatting with each other? Those are all good signs.

Are people working on cars parked on the lawn? Do a group of tough-looking kids eye you suspiciously? Is someone's stereo up loud enough for everyone on the street to enjoy? Not so good.

If the street feels tense, there's probably a reason, such as a problem neighbor or two. Can you live with that?

A Little Planning:

Your prospective street may be zoned for residential structures, but the street opposite your back yard could be zoned for multifamily or even commercial use. It's not a bad idea to check with the city planning department about future development of any nearby lots.

Google It:

You can go to

and compare the demographics of the neighborhood you're in compared to the one you want to move to. Also punch the address into search engines, lots of them, and see what comes up.

Was the house the scene of a crime at one point? Was there a fire there a few years ago? Just type in the name of the street. Are there news reports of recent crimes in the neighborhood? A check of

can show registered sex offenders living nearby.

The Drive:

If you've only seen your dream house on the weekend, it's worth paying a visit during the week, especially during one of the rush hours. That calm little street you like could be gridlocked from 5:00 p.m. on.

Corporate Neighbors:

You'll want to do a little research about the local employment picture, even if it doesn't affect you directly. If a majority of the zip code's residents work for "The Big Headquarters/Plant/etc." nearby, that could be a problem down the road. That company may be doing well now, but in a short time, as we've seen, industries can implode and all your neighbors could be out of work, creating a waterfall of real estate values.