Anybody who has ever moved to an unfamiliar area — a new neighborhood in one’s own city or a town 500 miles away — may have experienced an "I wish I’d known that before I moved here" moment.
It’s not just the new house — it’s what might be around it. Whether it’s something as unsettling as discovering that a leaking underground storage tank is just blocks away or merely as disappointing as finding that the nearest public park is too far away for the kids to walk to, there are myriad quality-of-life issues that a prospective homebuyer needs to factor into a purchase decision.
But how is a new kid on the block to know?
Fortunately, the Internet rides to the rescue again. Homebuying tools have proliferated far beyond real estate listings — the Web can fill you in on crime, how much money your neighbors probably make, and yes, whether there’s an environmental hazard lurking near your would-be backyard.
Five sites for sleuthing the ‘hood:
1. It’s not just an inconvenience that little Brendan and his buddies always have to be driven to the playground — it might hurt your home values, too. A study released in August by CEOs for Cities, a network of urban leaders, concluded that there’s a connection between home values and "walkability," or the walking distance to shopping and social attractions. It found that houses with above-average levels of walkability command a premium of $4,000 to $34,000 over houses with just average levels of walkability in metropolitan areas studied.
A couple of sites claim to calculate the walkability of a given address. WalkScore.com, which has been around for several years, pioneered the concept: Type in your address, and Walk Score will award it a score based on access to parks, shopping, schools, etc. Recently, a competitor, WalkShed.com, entered the scene, though at this point it contains only walkability data for Philadelphia. It claims to be more realistic than WalkScore.com because it doesn’t use an "as the crow flies" measure of distance, and is based, instead, on the block-by-block distance to a given place.
2. Now, about that toxic neighbor: Type a street address into MapHazards.com and it will produce a map pinpointing sites determined to have high, medium or low risk. These can range from brownfields, which are sites of abandoned industrial facilities, or soil-contamination areas (both high-risk) to known, leaking underground-storage tanks that might contaminate groundwater (medium-risk) or hazardous-materials storage tanks (low-risk).
That map, however, is a generalized starting point; a detailed report (gleaned from the 300 sites that MapHazards.com says it monitors) costs $9.95.
3. New to the list of anxiety-provoking contaminations is drywall. The seemingly innocuous homebuilding material has been in the headlines in many regions this year because many homeowners around the country have begun to complain that theirs is tainted and is making their homes unlivable. …CONTINUED
The homeowners generally complain that their drywall emits a sulfurous smell that’s not only unpleasant (and may be making them sick), but it may also be corroding their homes’ wiring and ruining their air-conditioning systems, among other concerns.
Most of the drywall appears to have been installed in 2005 and 2006 and appears to have been imported from China. Initial reports of faulty drywall were formerly confined to the South but have spread to other regions.
The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission recently unveiled a Web site that not only offers updates (online and via e-mail) on the situation, but also a map of where drywall problems have been reported. It’s at http://cpsc.gov/info/drywall.
4. So who, exactly, lives in the neighborhood where you’re thinking of buying? The federal government has stockpiled a wealth of data that breaks down ZIP codes by income, marital status and educational background.
You can learn such arcania as how long (in minutes) your average neighbor commutes to work, how much money that average neighbor may have made last year, and how likely he or she is to be a renter or a homeowner, among other demographic bits.
Find it at Census.gov, under the American Fact Finder tab.
5. Thousands of towns’ police departments regularly forward local crime statistics to the FBI, and the FBI’s Web site contains a trove of interesting (and sometimes alarming) data of just how busy the bad guys are in a given place.
(A word of caution, however. The FBI databases paint in broad strokes; they tally crime stats for whole cities, not neighborhoods. In addition, many areas aren’t represented at all; some crime experts suggest that it might be more enlightening to ring up your local police department and just ask.)
Nonetheless, the FBI site is a starting point. It’s at www.fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm. Click on 2008, which is the most recent data available; then find the Frequently Asked Questions section, and click on "How many crimes came to the attention of law enforcement in my city?" That will lead you to a state-by-state link, and then further to individual cities.
Mary Umberger is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
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