Online tools people can use to figure out what a neighborhood is really like.

If you’re relocating and don’t have a clue about the town you’re moving to, where do you start? My regular readers probably hope the answer is "Call a real estate professional!" But we all know that probably isn’t what’s going to happen. Not at first anyway.

So what kinds of online tools can be used to learn more about neighborhoods? If you don’t know the names of the neighborhoods themselves, the whole process gets even more complicated.

My real estate clients often tell me that one of the primary factors that interest homebuyers is neighborhood. If someone already knows what neighborhood they want to live in, they are far closer to making a decision or purchase.

But what if they don’t know the names of the neighborhoods? What if, for example, they’re moving in from some other end of the country for a job or other opportunity?

In this situation, people who are looking for a place to live have to do a little grunt work in order to figure out the lay of the land. Obviously, the best thing to do is visit the town and hang out with a friend who already lives there.

My guess is that a friend who is not a real estate professional will be more at liberty to discuss the pros and cons of any given neighborhood.

Aside from visiting in person, there are some online tools to help figure out what a town is like. Let’s look at two.

1. 4sqmap: Foursquare is a popular locative media application that let’s people tell their friends/the world where they are. People can also leave ideas on what’s great or not great about a location using Foursquare’s “tip” feature.

The data that Foursquare is capturing is what places are being frequented by people who use the system. Also, the cool things to do at any place. Super useful for understanding how to get the most out of a neighborhood.

Foursquare is pretty fun to use with your friends but the main site is fairly useless if you’re trying to use all Foursquare to understand a town. There is no useful browsing capability built into the main Foursquare application. You can search for something if you already know what it is, but you can’t just look over a map and see what’s there.

Enter, 4sqmap, which is a simple site that has a Google map on the right and a bunch of recommendations on the left. Type in "Grand Forks, N.D.," and you can see icons representing amenities arranged on a map.

What’s also nice is that you can see tips left by people who have actually been to those locations. The interface makes the voices of people very prominent, and that’s what you’re after: some local color.

You can, of course, also filter the results to the kinds of places that interest you. But looking at all of the places in a given area gives you a better sense of the fabric of a neighborhood.

There’s a difference between knowing where all of the coffee shops in town are and knowing what kinds of places are in the neighborhood.


Both are useful tasks, but they serve different purposes.

Someone, I’m sure, is jumping out of their seat wondering why I’m not talking about Yelp in this part of the column.

Two reasons:

1. The Yelp interface that has maps and venues doesn’t have any human voices.

2. Yelp reviews are sort of like the YouTube comments of locative media.

That said, Yelp can be a handy way to do this kind of research, as well.

2. Walkscore: Another important thing to know about a neighborhood is how good the transportation is. It’s good to know you can get to useful places on foot or bike or without a big hassle in the car.

Using WalkScore’s “big map” you can get a heat map of the town that shows which parts of town are more walkable than others.

In addition, there is a tool to help you calculate commute times. Just enter an address you’ll be commuting to, the amount of time you want to spend commuting, and your mode of transportation (car, bus, bike, walk) and you get a handy map that gives the range.

WalkScore is also integrated with many real estate websites. In these integrations there is typically an index number to let you know how "Walkable" the property is. So if that sort of thing is important to you (and I do hope it is) then that’s something to look for when/if you eventually end up at a real estate website.

Browsing the landscape

The problem faced by someone who doesn’t know a town is similar to that faced by regular Web users every day. It’s an old knowledge problem that predates the internet. It goes like this:

How do you find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for?

The answer is, you browse. Which just means you poke around a bit and see what you can see.

The challenge is that many Web experiences are based on a search experience, where you have to already know something about what you’re looking for. Search is incredibly powerful and its utility is obvious. But browsing is just as valuable.

Real estate websites want to facilitate the arrival at a specific property as fast as possible, which is why the search utility is in such a prominent place on these kinds of websites.

But some visitors to those websites don’t yet know what to search for and are left to sort of wander aimlessly through the site wondering whether the neighborhood is something they’ll like or not.

The two sites offer examples in browsing unfamiliar landscapes.

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