By Broderick Perkins
A home is not an island.
Where you want to live is as important as the house itself.
While you can't always have everything you want in a neighborhood, if you know what you need, you'll be better able to set your priorities and make the necessary trade-offs.
What to look for
In general, to protect the value of your home, you'll want to live near public services in a stable, well-lighted area, where the homes are well cared for.
"Good neighborhoods, like beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder," says Eric Tyson, personal financial counselor and co-author of "Home Buying For Dummies," (IDG Books).
Obviously, you also don't want heavy traffic, litter, pollution, factories, heavy industry, declining retail areas, blocks of vacant houses or buildings, increasing crime and vandalism.
"Being near excellent schools is important if you have young children. If, on the other hand, you're ready to retire, buying in a peaceful area with outdoor activities may appeal to you, whereas being next to a noisy junior high school is your worst nightmare. Neither neighborhood may suit you if you're the footloose and fancy-free type," said Tyson.
Where to look
The Internet is a quick and easy way to get lots of details about your prospective community.
Packed with data about demographics, statistics, history, trends and maps to show you around, the best online neighborhood profiles will also let you find neighborhoods based on certain criteria, say home price, proximity to schools, amenities and the like.
But don't forget the usual suspects.
"I love the local rags. The street sheets. Community newspapers," says Greg Pennington, a San Francisco resident.
"I have lived in numerous neighborhoods in California the last 20 years, and nothing beats the local newspaper. It will usually give information on local crime, school issues, complaints about the coverage of the larger citywide newspaper. The local rag always proves indispensable," says Pennington.
Local government offices are good sources too. The planning department which can tell you about development issues. The housing and neighborhood offices can background you on current concerns.
The chamber of commerce, local Better Business Bureau and other business groups can clue you in on retail, commercial and corporate issues that may affect the neighborhood.
With schools an important issue for many home buyers, with or without kids, exacting up-to-date information is crucial. School test scores are important and they give you a general idea of the teaching and learning level, but that's not all you need to know.
"You may not have school-age children, but you had better believe that parents to whom you may later want to sell your home will care a great deal. Don't rely on test scores or someone's opinion when assessing school quality; visit the schools and speak with parents and teachers to get a handle on the schools in an area," Tyson said.
Tyson also said, for just about any information, issue or concern, the people who live in the community are your best resources. Time spent in the community before you buy can provide insight unavailable elsewhere. Talk to homeowners and renters alike for the complete community scoop.
And be creative about mining for neighborhood information.
"A friend once told me that he wanted to run by the police station. So I took him and his children. He walked up to the front desk and proceeded to introduce himself to everyone and their mother. After he explained that he was going to be new to their town, he started speaking to the friendliest officers," said Pennington.
Broderick Perkins, has been a consumer journalist for 20 years. Experienced in print, electronic, and consulting journalism, he is chief executive editor of San Jose, CA-based, DeadlineNews.Com, an editorial content and consulting firm.