If you plan to buy your next home in your current town, you probably think you already know precisely what neighborhood(s) you’d entertain.
You might have driven around and spotted a street you’d love to call your own, or maybe you’ve always heard rave reviews of the schools, shops and other quintessential elements of a particular part of town. But there are numerous Internet resources that can surface gems you might not know about.
And, needless to say, if you’re relocating to a new area entirely, these same sites can make the daunting challenge of narrowing your house hunt down to the just-right city and neighborhood much less overwhelming — and much more likely to result in success.
Here are a handful of the online neighborhood-finding resources that I believe are vastly underutilized by house hunters:
1. NabeWise. NabeWise is where you go to get a real taste for a neighborhood’s flavor, online. This is where you find out where the hipsters, families, pet lovers or musicians live in your target town. It’s also where you can get a feel for whether the neighborhood tends more toward dive bars or farmers markets, and whether residents who’ve rated it were more inclined to call it gritty or peaceful; these are actual neighborhood reputation label options that the site offers and that visitors freely use.
Beyond the helpful and, in my experience, accurate neighborhood "flavor" ratings and many photos of the most popular neighborhoods in the couple of dozen cities it covers, NabeWise also offers uber-helpful, insight-rich blog posts from neighborhood residents, and surfaces nearby neighborhoods for those who think the location of a particular neighborhood is perfect, but not the noise level
2. Nextdoor. The age-old measure of friendly neighbors was how amenable they might be to a request to borrow a cup of sugar. Then, it was all about whether an area had its own Neighborhood Watch, then whether it throws a block party for National Night Out. Increasingly, though, the measure of a connected neighborhood is its social infrastructure online: Email lists and Facebook groups can be a good sign, but are often tough to find unless a home’s seller or the neighbors simply tell you they exist.
Nextdoor is a site where nothing but neighborhood social networks live and operate in one user-friendly place. It’s relatively new, so chances are good that your target neighborhood might not be there (yet), but if you do happen to see that the neighborhood of your dreams has a Nextdoor network, that’s a very good sign.
3. Walk Score. If you’re looking for a neighborhood with high "walkability" (as defined by WalkScore.com to encompass everything from ample amenities for everyone from bus riders to walkers to bicyclists, to shopping areas where the storefronts are very near to the sidewalks), this is the authoritative resource.
Walk Score actually assigns cities, neighborhoods, streets and individual addresses a numerical Walk Score rating that is exceedingly useful in helping buyers compare homes and neighborhoods on walkability; helping relocators start to get a feel for the daily lifestyle they would experience in various parts of the same town; and even helping sellers communicate their home’s walkability in a meaningful way to buyers.
4. StreetAdvisor. StreetAdvisor is like Yelp for neighborhoods: You type in a city price range or "personality" factor, and it gives you the local neighborhoods that have rated the highest on these elements, along with oodles of reviews of that part of town by the locals who live there. It also has a handy Q-and-A feature, where neighborhood residents-to-be ask very detailed questions, and those who live there readily reply, and a leaderboard that lives on the home page, showing which neighborhoods’ rankings have been moving up or down, of late.
5. Trulia Local. Trulia Local offers all sorts of beautiful, easy-to-use, data-driven interactive maps for homebuyers considering a property in a given neighborhood.
Type in a given city, and you’ll be given color-coded heat maps that allow you to surface, in a single click, everything from the rate of violent-to-non-violent crimes across town and in specific, zoomed-in neighborhoods, to grocery stores, restaurants, banks and post offices and even the actual homes listed for sale overlaid on this same map with little price tags, so you can see at a glance how prices are different in different parts of town.
And this map also has a feature I’ve never seen anywhere else: a commute-time map. You can use a simple slider to give the map your maximum desired commute time, and the map adjusts in color and scope to show you what areas you can reach from a given address on the map within that commute time frame. As you move your map to various spots, the map gives you even more precise time frames for how long it would take to get to your mouse from the "from" address.
6. National Clandestine Laboratory Locator. The title of this site sounds almost intriguing, with its hint of James Bond-style mystery. But the subject matter is super-serious: The federal Drug Enforcement Agency operates this database of homes that have been used to operate drug laboratories — mostly for the manufacture of methamphetamines.
A number of homebuyers have been hit with the horror of buying a bargain-priced home from an estate or bank, only to realize after moving in and after suffering medical symptoms that their home was once a drug lab and is completely contaminated with costly-to-eradicate chemicals.
Many times, these homes are sweet-looking, older homes that had been left vacant by an elderly owner’s illness or had been longtime rentals. This is more a neighborhood- and property-specific vetting tool than one you would use to find a neighborhood in the first place, but you’d be remiss not to click the link for your state and search for the name of your prospective street(s) before you buy a home.
Similarly, many states offer their own meth lab property database(s), and some third-party real estate disclosure providers will even search these databases for a homebuyer.