When shopping for a home, you probably know if you want to live in a city, the suburbs or out in the country. I was born in New York City and lived in/around the city until I left for college … so it's no surprise that I get frustrated when I don't live near a large city. When you start searching for a house, it's important to understand the impact house location will have on your lifestyle.
- Before you start looking at houses, research and identify a few communities that work well with your work, school and lifestyle.
- Pick a realtor who lives in/near these communities so they can help you understand what it's like to live there. Avoid realtors who claim to have this level of expertise about 20, 30 or more communities … as it's simply not possible.
- Prioritize your lifestyle requirements for work, school, health care, sports and other social activities, especially if you have schcool-age children or want to join a sports league.
Location, Location & Why It's Important
If you've read anything about real estate, you've probably heard that it's all about location, location, location. It's true but do you know why location is so important when buying a house?
You might think that the house itself defines what your life there will be like but we're not bears that hibernate. We venture out of your home for so many things that we take for granted that we don't realize how important they are to day-to-day living.
In this article, we'll walk through most of the features you'll want to consider when picking the communities where you'd like to look for a house. We'll start with a few key decisions you'll want to make before you get into your car … and then we'll drive around. Once you've identified a handful of communities, it's time to find a realtor who lives there. You want someone who knows the people, the lifestyle, the special features that make a place unique and who can help you navigate around problem areas. For example, our realtor in California knew we had to check the earthquake maps to avoid slide areas.
Another approach to researching communities is to rent an Airbnb house. You'll learn which neighborhood feels best for your lifestyle goals – pet friendly? family friendly? or a welcoming group of DINKs (double Income, no kids). If you can, walk through the neighborhood in the evening. This can tell you a lot. That's how we picked our Tokyo apartment – choosing a neighborhood with more kids and the least traffic as there were no yards.
- Location, Location & Why It's Important
- Buying My First Home: Close to Work & School
- House Location: Do You Want to Be Close to Family?
- House Location Determines the Quality of Schools
- What Amenities Does the City, Town or Village Offer?
- What Do You Want Your Neighborhood to Look & Feel Like?
- After House Location, What's Next?
Buying My First Home: Close to Work & School
As first time home buyers, my husband and I started searching for our first home right after the wedding. My husband was working on his PhD at UC Berkeley, so we had some constraints as to what we could afford. Home ownership was viable because I'd bought enough IBM stock through the employee stock purchase plan and had recently finished paying off my student loans.
We did some things right and yes, made mistakes like every other first-time home buyer. Buying a house is exciting, and lacking first-hand experience, you don't know how to find the hidden pitfalls. We wrote our offer, headed to the bank for our loan and that wasn't fun. The male chauvinist loan officer spent an hour talking to my clueless husband. Then I asked my questions and showed him who was in charge!
What we did right when buying our first home:
- Distant views of San Francisco Bay from the kitchen sink and living room … and a great view remains one of my top three house requirements.
- Walkability as we were sharing one car. My husband was able to walk to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station 1.1 miles away. This was perfect because parking was a problem for Berkeley students, and in a pinch, I too could take Bart to work.
- Three parks nearby and sidewalks to walk out dogs, important with a postage stamp yard. We also played co-ed soccer at Berkeley.
- Large, open concept living/dining room plus wood floors. But the pink bathroom tile made me cringe.
House Location: Do You Want to Be Close to Family?
According to the NY Times, Americans are “… a country of close-knit families, with members of multiple generations leaning on one another for financial and practical support”. The article (and map) says The Typical American Lives Only 18 Miles from Mom, due in part to baby boomers who need more care and two-income families that need help with child care.
The two biggest factors that enable people to leave the family nest are education and income. Education provides for higher incomes and higher incomes give parents the money to pay for child care. This was certainly true for me as I had au pairs beginning when my older son was two weeks old … until my youngest finished sixth grade.
House Location Determines the Quality of Schools
Schools are free, right? Not really because their funding comes from federal, state and local property taxes. That's why more expensive houses have better schools … because they pay higher property taxes (learn more about Public School Revenue Sources).
Before you think this doesn't matter because you don't have kids and might not start a family for several years, remember when it comes selling a house, great schools garner higher prices. If you value education, don't you want neighbors who have similar values?
School research should be done online before you get in your car, so here are some of the most popular school ranking websites:
- GreatSchools.org – lets you search by zip code or school name. Be aware they don't add new schools right away.
- Niche.com – ranks school districts within a state. You can then explore individual school ratings within the district, all shown on a map.
- SchoolDigger.com – provides a table showing school districts ranked top to bottom in a state. After this you'll be better off going to one of the other websites.
What Amenities Does the City, Town or Village Offer?
This question is huge when you realize without these services, you'll have to drive to neighboring towns for the features you will rely on day-to-day. Especially important are places you want to visit daily like Starbucks versus the dentist who you only visit twice a year.
Here's a list of community amenities you should look for:
- How close are shopping venues? From grocery stores, restaurants to local shops like hair and nail salons? When I moved to Portsmouth, NH … it was important to have a bagel store nearby.
- How far is the drive to the box stores like Target and Home Depot?
- Are government supported services such as libraries and the post office nearby? My post office today is 30 minutes away so I rented a PO Box just 10 minutes from my house.
- What types of transportation are available? Are there buses, trains and how far is the nearest airport?
- What types of activities and entertainment are nearby – parks, bike paths, volley ball and tennis courts, swimming pool, golf course, bowling alley, movie theater, etc.
- Are health services nearby, like a hospital or urgent care facility. How many doctors, dentists and eye doctors are available in the c0mmunity? You want to have some choices.
- How vulnerable is the community? Here are some resources to help you verify that house locations you're looking at are safe.
- CrimeGrade.org – makes it easy to verify you're looking at a safe community.
- FEMA Flood Map Service Center – lets you know if prospective houses will be in a flood zone and require flood insurance.
- InspectToProtect.org – will tell you if your favorite communities are following updated building codes. It will also give you a list of past county weather events with dates for hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, severe and winter storms.
- Zoning to maintain the character of the community, keeping out new commercial and industrial development.
What Do You Want Your Neighborhood to Look & Feel Like?
When you move it's important to consider who your neighbors will be. Do you want a family-friendly neighborhood if you're planning to start a family soon? Would you like a diverse group of neighbors, ones that will share their culture, foods and more?
We didn't consider this with our first home and it still worked as we were busy at work and school. With kids we always looked for places that had lots of kids and parks for them to play. My favorite house location was San Jose, California with a “cabana club”, a community pool, swim team and Wednesday community dinners at the pool.
So what should you look for when driving around potential neighborhoods?
- How easy was it to drive to the neighborhood? Is there easy access to roads you'll use driving to work … but no traffic congestion or noise from main roads.
- Depending on where you plan to live, security is important with fencing, an access gate or even better, 7×24 hr guard coverage?
- Is the neighborhood well maintained? How are the roads, lighting and landscaping?
- Are there sidewalks to encourage walking, making it easier to meet your neighbors. My granddaughters love riding their bikes and scooters around the neighborhood, sometimes on the sidewalk and other times in the street … so cul-de-sacs are perfect.
- Neighborhood amenities are gaining popularity – playground, pool, tennis courts, a dog park, a community garden and more.
- Is there a clubhouse or some other type of meeting area where the neighborhood can gather for parties?
- Parking can be a real issue in some neighborhoods, so make sure you'll have enough parking between the garage, driveway and street parking if it's allowed.
- Home Owner Associations (HOAs) are appreciated and often hated. Learn what current homeowners like or dislike about their HOA, to see if you're willing to live with their rules.
After House Location, What's Next?
Now that you're more aware of all the things to consider when picking your next home, you've got a few more steps to follow.
- Pick two or three locations to focus your search for a house (the focus of this article).
- Review your finances and make sure you're ready to buy a house in one of the communities you'd like to live in.
- Find an experienced realtor who knows these locations very well. A realtor who knows the statistics on school teacher turnover … knows their community!
- Identify your priorities among the house features you can't change easily.
- Recognize easy changes you can make to your new home. Don't get turned off by crazy paint colors. They're a bonus as they discourage buyers who don't know that painting is an easy homeowner project.
- Now you're ready to find your new home. Here are tips on the home buying process, from a realtor friend, A 9 Step Guide to Buying a House.
- Once you own your home, be sure to check out 30 New Homeowner Tips You Don't Want to Skip.