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11 Tips to Find the Best Neighborhood to Live In

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I’m no stranger to moving. My wife and I have moved four times in five years, all due to her educational track (and eventual employment). With each successive move, deciding where we should live has been a major decision. We needed to balance a host of considerations, from local economic conditions and housing costs, to commute times and lifestyle amenities. For future moves that involve buying a home or accommodating children, we may have to weigh other factors as well, such as school quality and property tax rates.

We’re not alone. According to U.S. Census Bureau data going back to 2000, between 11% and 15% of all Americans aged one year and older move during a given year. Many of these moves are short-distance, with movers upsizing or downsizing their homes, seeking lower housing costs, or opting for an easier commute. But many people move across county or state lines, often hundreds or thousands of miles from anything familiar. If you’re planning a move to an unfamiliar city, state, or even country, keep these tips in mind as you look for a convenient, comfortable neighborhood that fits your budget and lifestyle.

Tips to Find the Right Neighborhood or Community

1. Consider Renting Before You Buy

Between useful tools like Zillow, local residents willing to give advice, and your own intuition, you can probably get a good sense of where you and your family would be happy for the long-term. But it’s impossible to be 100% sure that your new neighborhood or community is the right fit until you’ve lived there for some time.

That’s why it’s a good idea to rent your first place in a new area, particularly if you’re moving from far away and aren’t very familiar with your new city or region. Renting in a new neighborhood is, quite literally, “trying before you buy.” You’d probably only need to go through a single lease cycle – six months or a year, depending on the landlord – to determine whether you want to stay in the immediate area for the long haul. And if you eventually decide to look for a more suitable area, you won’t be burdened with a home that you need to sell quickly.

Renting before you buy may also increase your chances of making a better home-buying decision. Though online real estate databases and virtual tours make it easier to shop for homes from afar, there’s still no replacement for inspecting a home (and neighborhood) in person. And trying to buy a home while also juggling all the other issues involved with a move can be a rushed, haphazard process that doesn’t produce optimal results. Once you have a rented home base in your new neighborhood or community, you’re likely to have more time, energy, and resources to devote to a thorough, well-researched home search.

2. Look Up Local Property Tax Rates

Even if you’re renting to start, property tax rates can have a big influence on your housing costs – and thus your overall cost of living. For many city and county governments, property taxes are a major source of revenue, far outstripping local sales and income taxes (if they’re even levied on the county or municipal level).

Differences in property taxation between regions can be dramatic, largely owing to differences in tax rates and home values. According to Intuit, the average property tax burden in expensive Passaic County, New Jersey, is equivalent to 8.79% of the county’s median per capita income. In Vernon Parish, Louisiana, where homes are much cheaper and rates are lower, the average burden is equivalent to just 0.25% of the median per capita income. However, high property taxes may equate with better, more responsive local services, such as police, fire, parks, and street maintenance.

In some cases, property tax rates don’t correlate closely with rates for other types of taxes. For instance, Texas is typically thought of as an affordable, low-tax state, and in many ways it is. According to Zillow, the state’s median home value is significantly lower than the U.S. median, and Texas is one of just seven states without a state income tax. But its property tax rates are far higher than the national average: The Tax Foundation found that the average Texan homeowner pays 1.81% of his or her home value and 3.65% of his or her income in property taxes each year, ranking the state third nationally in terms of total property tax burden (behind only New Jersey and New Hampshire, which also doesn’t have an income tax).

It’s worth noting that property taxes aren’t always uniform across entire regions, so you may simply have to adjust your home search to a neighboring community if the tax burden in your first-choice community is too high. A simplistic example, per the League of Minnesota Cities: In my home city of Minneapolis, combined city and county property taxes on a $200,000 house amount to $3,277 per year. In neighboring Edina, an affluent suburb in the same county, the tax burden on a $200,000 house amounts to $2,585 annually.

Finding information about property tax rates isn’t difficult. The Tax Foundation has an interactive calculator that shows property tax rates by county, plots three- and five-year averages, and allows you to compare rates with other counties. In many cases, you can also find current rate information, as well as any proposed changes, on your city or county’s official website.

3. Evaluate Other Cost of Living Factors

Other cost of living factors (such as fuel and transportation costs, healthcare costs, utility rates, food prices, and miscellaneous taxes) are important as well. Some of these factors are more or less consistent across states or regions, limiting the financial benefit of choosing one neighborhood or community over another within a particular commuting area.

For example, local and regional variation in gas prices depends heavily on state taxes. No matter where you live in a high-tax state, your gas is likely to be more expensive than in a low-tax state. Per AAA’s Fuel Gauge, a good resource for up-to-date, state-level information about gas prices, the average price for a gallon of regular fuel is more than $1 higher in high-tax California than in low-tax Wyoming and South Carolina. GasBuddy is a good resource for city- or ZIP code-level gas price data.

Some cost of living factors vary widely within commuting areas. For instance, some municipalities impose local income taxes, while others don’t. Some communities, particularly urban condo complexes and amenity-rich suburban developments, levy homeowners’ association (HOA) fees for common-area maintenance and improvements. Healthcare and insurance costs are surprisingly variable across short distances too. For a holistic picture of living costs in a particular area and to make comparisons with other areas, check the Council for Community and Economic Research’s Cost of Living Index.

Evaluate Cost Living Factors

4. Prioritize Safety and Comfort

You’re not going to enjoy your new neighborhood or community if you feel unsafe there. Before you move, use online sources such as City-Data.com and CrimeReports to get a sense of property and violent crime rates at the municipal, ZIP code, or neighborhood level. You can also check your new city or county website or the local law enforcement agency’s website, or contact the local police directly to discuss “good” and “bad” areas.

If and when you visit each neighborhood or community to scout for housing, look for signs of the area’s safety and stability. Are yards and houses well-kept? Do you see signs of neglect or vandalism, such as boarded buildings and graffiti? Are there lots of people out and about, or does the area feel abandoned? Do lots of homes appear to be for sale, or worse, in foreclosure? Ideally, you should visit the same place at different times of the day for a full picture of the ebb and flow of local life.

Crime statistics and neighborhood stability are a double-edged sword. Less desirable areas may have lower rents and home prices, making it cheaper to locate there, but may also come with greater risk of property damage or theft (and thus higher auto and home insurance rates). And if you buy a home in such areas, it may not appreciate in value as quickly as homes in more desirable areas nearby.

It’s important to note that you often don’t have to travel far to find wildly different conditions, so your choice might not impact your lifestyle or commute times much. Desirable and undesirable communities and neighborhoods are often separated by nothing more than a park, major thoroughfare, or industrial zone.

5. Seek Areas With Multiple Transit Options

If you’re being relocated by your employer or are moving for a new job altogether, you’ll likely restrict your housing search to areas that offer the optimal balance of a fast, convenient commute and affordable rents or home values. For many people, that means outlying neighborhoods or communities near major highways that connect to large employment centers, such as downtowns and suburban office parks.

But even if you’re planning on commuting by car most of the time, consider whether your candidate neighborhoods also have access to other forms of transit. This is particularly important if your daily commute involves lots of traffic. Even in gridlock, it’s not safe to respond to emails, read for enjoyment, or catch up on sleep when you’re behind the wheel of a car – but you can easily and safely do so on the bus or train. And commuting by car can be stressful, winding you up before you get to work and making it hard to decompress before you arrive home.

Alternatively, active transportation, such as walking, jogging, or biking, can maximize your commute’s productivity and save money on gas, gym memberships, and vehicle wear and tear. Look for neighborhoods with amenities – such as wide sidewalks and protected bike lanes – that allow you to bike, walk, or jog to work safely. WalkScore, a housing search website, offers a reliable index that ranks blocks, neighborhoods, and towns based on how easy and safe it is to commute and run errands without using a car. To evaluate transit options in the areas you’re considering, check out the city or county transit authority’s website to determine the modes (bus, streetcar, light rail, and so on) and service frequencies available nearby.

Such amenities were a big priority during our most recent move. When the weather is warm, my wife commutes by bike as often as possible – a 25-minute ride in good conditions, mostly along protected bikes lanes and separated paths. We suspend our gym membership during the warm season, saving about $50 per month for several months.

6. Aim for Fewer, More Efficient Trips

A shorter daily commute, or at least a more productive one, is likely to be at the top of your list of transportation concerns. But your job isn’t the only obligation or activity that takes you out of the house on a daily or weekly basis. Grocery shopping is a major consideration, as may be proximity to a gym, fitness club, or parks suitable for outdoor recreation. If you’re a single parent or two-earner household with young kids, you may need to find a suitable daycare facility. And depending on your lifestyle, you might want to have other resources at hand as well, such as restaurants, farmers’ markets, and boutiques.

Regardless of the exact mix and your primary mode of transportation, focus on neighborhoods or communities that reduce the number and frequency of trips you need to take to reach these resources and obligations. If you have a predictable daily routine – say you leave home, drop the kids off at daycare or school, go to work, pick the kids up, stop at the grocery store, and return home – you should consider a location that allows you to hit each stop while traveling in the same direction.

In this example, you’d want to have your home at one end of your travel zone, your workplace at the other, and daycare and the grocery store in between, preferably with a near-straight line (or at least clear route) between them all. A perfect arrangement of this sort isn’t always attainable, but it’s a good ideal to strive for. After all, fewer and more efficient trips save gas, time, and stress.

The best way I’ve found to do this, at least prior to visiting, is to zoom in on the area with Google Maps, plug in known addresses (like schools and workplaces), scan for amenities (like grocery stores – usually indicated on the map), and plot the best route between them. Depending on the location, the map may indicate real-time traffic conditions as well. If you visit in person, actually driving or walking your route can give you a better sense of things that aren’t easy to see on a map, such as chaotic intersections, blind corners, and pedestrian-unfriendly areas.

7. Narrow Your Choice of Housing Stock

The process of finding suitable housing involves setting priorities and making some compromises, based on your family’s size, budget, desired housing type, preferred location (relative to work, school, and other frequent destinations), and possibly other factors.

Some considerations are more obvious than others. For instance, unless your budget is severely constrained, a studio apartment isn’t going to cut it for a family of five. Others are more subtle, but nearly as important: having a nice yard for a dog, modern appliances, or ample onsite storage. And maybe you want your home to have certain intangible qualities, such as historic charm, that aren’t likely to be available in every house you look at.

Though some neighborhoods and communities have a wide mix of housing types and thus a higher likelihood of finding a place that satisfies as many priorities as possible, other areas do not. Depending on where you’re moving then, you may need to expand your search radius – and possibly sacrifice proximity to your workplace – in order to find a suitable home that fits your needs and budget.

Narrow Housing Stock Choice

8. Study the Area’s Location and Topography

The physical characteristics of the land under your new neighborhood can have a surprisingly powerful impact on your overall experience as a resident. For starters, topography may affect your monthly mortgage or rent payment: If you live on a high slope with a beautiful view of a city, countryside, mountains, or nearby body of water, you’re surely going to pay for the privilege.

Perhaps more importantly, some landscapes present special problems during ice, snow, torrential rainstorms, and natural disasters such as fires or earthquakes. This is especially true if the only routes out of your neighborhood or community traverse obstacle-prone terrain, such as a pass, steep slope, or flood-prone lowland, or if outgoing roads are just poorly maintained in general.

At minimum, inconvenient or treacherous conditions add time and stress to your commute. In the worst case, you could find yourself unable to reach work, school, or childcare resources until the roads clear, sapping your productivity and indirectly threatening your finances – especially if you’re an hourly worker or can’t work from home. In such cases, you may need to go to great lengths to get to and from the outside world.

An example: In our last location, one of my wife’s colleagues lived in a small, woodsy community several miles off the main highway, connected only by a long, unpaved road through rugged terrain. He loved the serene, isolated property, which actually wasn’t that far from the small city where he worked. But when it snowed heavily, the road to his house would become impassable, even in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. To reach work on time, he’d have to park his truck on the highway shoulder and ski down to it.

Speaking of snow, elevation is an important consideration in many desirable locations. When combined with steep topography, elevation can create localized risks that might not be obvious if you visit at warm or dry times of year. Even in areas typically thought of as warm or mild, such as California and the desert Southwest, high-elevation neighborhoods or towns can temporarily find themselves cut off as snow levels drop and roads become impassible.

Likewise, mudslides are a common occurrence in steep, high-elevation areas, particularly those with distinct wet and dry seasons or susceptibility to fire (recent burn scars, devoid or nearly so of vegetation, are more susceptible to mudslides than areas with intact root systems). If your home is in the way of a potential mudslide, you run a higher risk of property loss – and may have to pay higher insurance premiums to compensate. And during unusually wet periods, mudslides and floods can cut off roads in and out of high-elevation communities, sometimes for days or weeks on end.

9. Evaluate School Quality and Choice

If you have or are planning to have kids, the availability of high-quality public or charter schools is a critical consideration. Depending on the size of the school districts in your new region, finding a higher-quality district might require a move of just a mile or two. And even districts not regarded as high-quality may have individual schools, such as charter or magnet schools, that perform well above district-wide averages.

You can find highly rated schools on Great Schools, which evaluates school and district quality across the United States. Alternatively, Zillow’s maps feature has a search filter that lets you search for homes only in communities and neighborhoods with access to high-quality schools.

However, high-performing districts – those with lower dropout rates and test scores above the state average, among other factors – often have higher property tax rates. Even if you rent, high property tax rates can raise your housing costs.

If you don’t have school-age or soon-to-be-school-age kids (or have no immediate plans to have kids), renting or buying in a lower-quality, lower-cost school district nearby could make more financial sense.

That said, high-quality, high-cost districts tend to have other clear advantages, such as safe streets, responsive municipal services, and geographical convenience. These positives ease the pain of higher housing costs. And depending on the layout and location of the school districts in your area, you may still find affordable housing in high-quality districts.

For instance, my cousin’s family recently bought a house on the outer edge of a high-performing school district, where homes are much cheaper (and lot sizes larger) than at the district’s affluent heart. It’s a win-win: His kid goes to a great public school, and his monthly mortgage payment leaves plenty of budgetary breathing room. Also, if and when he sells his house, he could profit from the decision to locate in a good district. According to Fox Business, surveys by Realtor.com and Redfin found that buyers are willing to pay more for homes with access to highly rated schools, all other things being equal.

10. Uncover the Community’s Character

Different people expect different things out of where they live, so community character is subjective. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to evaluate the intangible aspects of candidate neighborhoods and determine where you fit in best.

Look for characteristics such as the following:

  • Public Life. Do local businesses, religious institutions, and other organizations put together public events, such as block parties and parades? If you’re interested in meeting and becoming closer to your neighbors, such events are a great way to do so. Check the official municipal or neighborhood association website to get a sense of the type, tone, and frequency of such events.
  • Demographics and Family-Friendliness. Who lives in the area, and what sorts of businesses predominate? If you’re a twenty-something looking for vibrant nightlife, a proliferation of bars and clubs on the main drag might be a good thing. If you’re raising small children, you may prefer a quieter, safer area – even if it costs a bit more to live there.
  • Neighborliness. How do locals interact with one another? In some areas, it might be considered rude not to interact with your neighbors, keep up with their business, or provide support to those in need. In other areas, people are more introverted and less supportive, preferring to go about their business and interact minimally, or not at all, with their neighbors. Your personality type and lifestyle will determine which end of the spectrum you prefer. The best way to get a sense of an area’s friendliness is probably to visit in person, though scanning user feedback on home-search sites like Zillow and Trulia can provide useful clues.

These intangibles might not directly affect your budget. But they could affect your overall happiness, productivity, and your (or your kids’) safety.

Uncover Community Character

11. If Possible, Leverage Local Connections for Specific Insights

If you’ve been relocated for work, you might find yourself miles from anyone you know. But if you’re moving to a place with one or more familiar faces, don’t be a stranger – even if you were never close to begin with.

Definitely take advantage of the fact that many people enjoy talking about where they live. If you’re able to visit on a reconnaissance trip, invite them out for coffee or lunch, making it clear that you’ll pick up the tab. At the meeting, lay out your needs and concerns, then ask your contacts’ opinion about the neighborhoods or communities that best address them. And however awkward it might feel, don’t be afraid to take notes. After all, you’re making a major life decision.

Relying on personal connections for tips and insight might sound old-fashioned in a world where Zillow, Trulia, Wikipedia, and municipal websites contain a wealth of information about cities and their neighborhoods. But individual residents can be more frank and helpful, especially with people they know, than online resources that may be edited to portray places favorably.

Final Word

Moving to a new community can be a bittersweet experience. On one hand, it’s exciting to explore a new place, make new friends, and cultivate new opportunities. On the other, it’s often painful to leave behind friends, loved ones, and special memories. During what’s already likely to be an emotional interlude, being able to find the right community or neighborhood for you and your family with minimal stress can make all the difference in the world.

Are you planning to move soon?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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