During the house hunt, you may be hung up on details like architecture styles or if you should get a one- or two-story home. But ultimately, what’s more important on your homebuying journey is finding your perfect neighborhood.
Jennifer Gralitzer, a New Jersey-based Neighborhoods.com real estate agent who also recently bought a home for herself, says that homebuyers often focus too much on finding a move-in ready home of their dreams when they should be paying attention to the community around it.
“Finding the right neighborhood is more important because you can’t change the location, but you can change the house,” she says. “It’s easy to change cabinet colors. It’s not so easy to change a school district.”
How do you know if a neighborhood is right for you? While a lot of it comes down to instinct (more on that later), here are some signs you’re on your way to finding your perfect neighborhood.
Finding the right neighborhood is more important because you can’t change the location, but you can change the house.
1. You’ve Narrowed Down Your Search
At the beginning of every home search, you need to decide what your must-haves are in a neighborhood. Maybe that list includes a location within a good school district, an easy commute to work, or walkability. Maybe you need to be by other family members or friends, or you need a major grocery store nearby. Whatever they are, those neighborhood “musts” are more important than the home itself.
“You have to know from the beginning what your must-haves are and what you can compromise because you’ll never get everything,” Gralitzer says. In her most recent home search, she decided to compromise on some of her dream home features—like having an extra bedroom and a home office, for example—because she wanted to be in a walkable community near a lot of amenities.
When you figure out those must-haves and the things you can live without, that will probably limit you to certain neighborhoods. Once you find a neighborhood that has what you need, and just so happens to include a home you like that’s in your price range, you’re on the right track.
2. Residents Take Pride in The Neighborhood
When people love their neighborhood, they invest a lot in making it great. During your quest to find the ideal neighborhood, Gralitzer says to look for “little things that show the integrity of the neighborhood is good.” For the neighborhood Gralitzer ended up choosing, she liked that it doesn’t allow overnight street parking and trash and recycling pick-ups are included.
She says to pay attention to the other houses in the neighborhood you’re eying: Do people mow their lawns, power wash their house, and otherwise maintain their properties? Homeowners taking time to keep up their homes and properties show neighborhood pride and investment into making their community a great place to live—which is good news for you.
3. You Can Do Your Daily Routine Here With Ease
Whether getting the kids to school or grabbing an iced coffee is an essential part of your daily routine (no judgment here), you’ll probably be a lot happier if you can do these things easily in your potential neighborhood. Before committing to a neighborhood, practice your daily routine in your top picks and see if things run smoothly.
And seriously: Include every aspect of your daily routine, even the not-important seeming stuff like the aforementioned coffee run.
Before she bought her home, Gralitzer drove from her future house to her kids’ school to see what the trip was like. She also advises driving through the neighborhood during various times of the day and night to see “the typical patterns of the neighborhood.” What’s the traffic like? Is it quiet or loud? Are residents out on their porches or do they keep to themselves? These aspects of neighborhood life will affect your daily routine and are good to know before moving in.
(Tip: If you want to scope out the amenities that are important to your daily routine, use neighborhoods.com’s Yelp tool to spot restaurants, grocery stores, things to do, and more on the neighborhood map.)
4. It Caters to Families—If That’s Important to You
If you have kids or are planning on having kids, your neighborhood should have some family-friendly amenities. This can include parks and playgrounds or homes with backyards for kids to play.
Most prominent on many parents’ minds is being located in a high-quality school district. To see how nearby schools stack up, you can look at a neighborhood’s Neighborhoods.com page, which includes data from GreatSchools.
Gralitzer also advises prospective homebuyers to check out state records for school performance, and also, it doesn’t hurt to talk to parents who send their kids to the neighborhood’s schools. As we’ll talk more about later, numbers can tell you one thing, but real-life perspectives are even more valuable.
5. It’s a Neighborhood on the Rise
Sometimes, a neighborhood’s value is not immediately apparent—and that could be a good thing because that probably means prices are still low. But how can you tell if a neighborhood is up-and-coming?
While “there’s no crystal ball,” Gralitzer says, there are a few ways to tell if the neighborhood you’re looking at is on the up-and-up:
- It’s accessible. Is it near a major public transit station, a highway, otherwise accessible to other parts of town? Having access to various modes of transit is a big part of what makes a neighborhood grow.
- It has top-notch natural amenities. Is it near greenspaces or a waterfront? Development will follow.
- New restaurants, cafes, and retail are coming in. Whether it’s a Trader Joe’s or a hot new local restaurant, if the neighborhood’s getting hip spots, the people will follow.
- Investors are buying. If investors are renovating and flipping homes in a neighborhood, that means they’re confident about getting their money back.
- There’s a sense of community. If there are plenty of neighborhood events or lots of local businesses, a tight-knit residential feel is contagious.
But remember: Gralitzer says it could take at least 10 years for an up-and-coming neighborhood to be considered established. You should feel at home in the neighborhood as it currently is, but if you like the neighborhood even though it needs a little TLC, you could be apart of a growing community.
(Tip: You can also use Neighborhoods.com pricing trends data to see if a neighborhood is rising in value.)
6. You Feel at Home in the Community
“I learned through experience that you may be happy in a house, but if you’re not at home in your neighborhood, that’s a horrible feeling.”
Above all, the perfect neighborhood will give you the intangible feeling of being “at home.” But how do you figure out if you’ll fit in among your neighbors?
If you’re searching for homes in an active adult community or a master-planned community, you can just go to the community center and talk to residents. With urban neighborhoods, scoping out the residential vibe takes a little more groundwork.
Gralitzer advises not to be scared about knocking on someone’s door in the neighborhood and asking residents what it’s like to live there, or simply hang out in a neighborhood coffee shop and observe the milieu to get a better perspective of the area. You can also lurk in a neighborhood’s Facebook group, and look at resident reviews on Neighborhoods.com pages. Whatever you do, Gralitzer says, don’t take one person’s word for it.
If you’re shy, all the more reason why you really need to have a professional real estate agent who can give you insight on the neighborhood.
But sometimes, knowing you’re in the right neighborhood often comes down to instinct.
“It’s more than just the analytical things you can do to help you determine [if] it’s the right neighborhood—it’s the feeling you get driving or walking down the street,” Gralitzer says. “It’s the same way you know when a home is right for you. It may not have the extra bedroom, half bath, or color cabinets you want, but you know by the comfort level—it has to feel like home.”
Gralitzer says the first time she bought a home, she focused too much on the house itself. Focus more on the neighborhood, she says, and you’ll be happier in the long-run.
"I learned through experience that you may be happy in a house, but if you’re not at home in your neighborhood, that’s a horrible feeling."