You know the saying, “Real estate is about three things: Location, location, location.” It’s an adage as old as Time itself (assuming Time started in the early 20th century). Though the real estate market has changed immeasurably since then, the principle is as true now as it ever was. In a new house, you can change the walls, carpets, and fixtures… Or you can just knock the whole thing down and start again. The one thing you can’t do: move the house itself.
So it’s clear that picking the right spot is imperative when choosing to settle down. This can be daunting when moving to a new place, be it a region, town, or even neighborhood. In the Before Times (i.e. pre-housing bubble, when the market was a completely different animal), there were steps one could take to ease the transition. A buyer would visit a prospective locale repeatedly, at different times of day, under different circumstances. “Spend as much time there as possible before committing,” they’d say, a knowing twinkle in their eyes. We’ve even heard it said that a buyer should stay the night in the house before putting in an offer!
No longer. People are more desperate to find the right place than ever, as homes come off the market quickly and prices are head-spinningly volatile. As such, many of us will need to hurriedly put in offers — without actually visiting the property first! A terrifying prospect, to be sure.
But fear not! Or, fear less, at least. Here are some resources and methods that we’ve found helpful when choosing the city, town, or neighborhood that’s right for you!
While most towns are not world-famous destinations, boasting the largest pecan in the US, just about every place wants to stand out to prospective visitors or buyers. This means most areas will have an official website, usually run by the local government. (Look for the .gov or .us domain, though this isn’t always the case.)That’s good news for you because it can give you a snapshot of what the area is, was, and wants to become. If you can trudge past the announcements on water usage mandates and delayed construction projects, there is a treasure trove of info that can help you see what you’re getting yourself into. Check out the sites for parks and recreation, senior care, transit, etc. — whichever departments are most relevant to you. Take a look at the committees that are actively pursuing projects. You can even go through the minutes of prior town meetings. By paying attention to what the town is prioritizing, you can get an idea of where the town is headed in the coming years or decades.
Planning documents and presentations can be especially illuminating. What are the stated goals for the next planning period? Are they increasing density or spreading out? Expanding senior care facilities? Focusing on historical preservation? Most towns will update their comprehensive plans every eight to ten years, keeping the information relatively up to date. If you like what the town is trying to move towards, there’s a good chance your values and preferences will fit right in.
Review sites like Yelp and Google can also paint a partial picture. What types of restaurants are present, and more importantly, which ones are actually good? Consider the amenities and attractions nearby. Parks, museums, concert venues, gyms — which ones matter to you? An opera buff may not be thrilled about a town that’s forty minutes from the nearest theater. (There are still opera buffs out there, right?)
Once you have an area narrowed down a bit more, maybe a neighborhood or even a specific property, take advantage of Google’s Street View. See what your morning jog or dog walking route might look like. Stroll by the little corner cafe. Check out the condition of the streets (especially if you’ll be parking on them). Monitor things like functional sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, or ramps for strollers and wheelchairs. When you can’t visit, taking a tour through your screen might be the best way to immerse yourself in the location and see how it feels.
Another potentially helpful resource that we’ve used is city-data.com. The site has endless statistics to dive into. From average home price to residents’ ability to hear (yes, for real), there is more information than you can shake a stick at. That said, take this info with a grain of salt. Bear in mind that these statistics can be incomplete, absent of context, or downright biased. We’ve lived in places that have had negative reputations for decades, only to find that they’re lovely communities — with lower housing prices! School ranking websites can be used similarly, with similar disclaimers about what the numbers actually mean. If you’re careful and you keep your critical thinking cap on, area stats can fill some info gaps you may have.
Buying a home in an unfamiliar place is a risk, as evidenced by the pit in your stomach the first time you considered the possibility. (That’s not just us, right?) Sadly, we can’t promise that the looming sense of terror will go away before it’s all over and you finally move your stuff in. But using the tips above might just make you a little more comfortable with the prospect.
A new journey awaits, so venture boldly onward, armed with knowledge, courage, and… a new place for all your stuff!