Real estate agents often say that your neighborhood, location, and community are the only things you can’t change about your home. After all, it’s a lot harder to renovate a neighborhood than it is a house or condominium.
In short, make sure you don’t overlook the importance of place when you’re buying your next home. Home buyers, according to Zillow research, consistently report a few key factors they heavily valued when deciding about where to live. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more critical neighborhood characteristics.
Start with an inventory of your current neighborhood
Choice overload is real, and it can lead to buyer’s remorse, so narrow down your criteria with a simple exercise. Take a minute to think about your current neighborhood, then start a pros-and-cons list.
Once you’ve determined what you like about where you live now, and listed what you don’t like about it, start a third list. This one will detail what you want in a new neighborhood.
Then combine the first and third lists (what you like about your neighborhood + what you would like in your new neighborhood). The result is a list of priorities; now consider ranking them.
Keeping an open mind, decide what you can and can’t live without. Because a neighborhood that checks all your boxes will likely be more expensive, prioritizing your criteria ahead of time can make the selection process easier — especially if you’re moving into a competitive market. Lastly, hold onto that second list (the one where you ticked off what you don’t like about your current area). It’ll come in handy for spotting red flags early in the selection process.
Everyone’s lists will vary, but read on for some major considerations you’ll surely want to include.
How walkable is it?
Walkability is a big lifestyle decision, and home buyers regularly report it as an important influence on where they ultimately choose to live. In 2021, more home buyers — 64 percent of those surveyed — considered walkability a “very or extremely important” characteristic in the neighborhood they chose.
Ask yourself how much driving you want to do, and whether you really want to own a car or not. Whether you’re single or moving with a large family, consider this first. Owning a car opens your options to suburbs and rural areas, but you’ll want to weigh the costs of car ownership.
Conversely, choosing an area with high walkability and alternative transportation options, like ride share services or public transportation, may allow you to minimize or forgo car expenses, like gas, insurance and depreciation. With that extra money in your budget, you may be able to afford more home. Going without a car means you’ll want to focus on urban centers and downtowns, which tend to feature better transportation options and walk scores.
But there’s more to consider in walkability than whether or not necessities are within walking distance. To name a few:
How far is public transportation? When it’s something you’ll be doing on a regular basis, a 3-minute walk to the bus stop is very different from a 20-minute walk.
Is the area designed for walking? Are there sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly crosswalks, or will you be walking to the grocery store along a busy street with no shoulder?
What are the alternative transportation options? Are rideshare services and carpooling options available? Cities large and small are increasingly allowing micromobility services. What does this look like in the areas you’re considering?
What’s actually nearby? Are you close to grocery stores and medical facilities, or a bingo hall and a stretch of fast food joints? Your main question here: Is what’s nearby complimentary to my lifestyle? A Walk Score is a starting place, but a little research will help ensure that you can truly walk to what you need and want.
If you have a commute, what will it look like?
While walkability to grocery stores and other staples is one factor, your proximity to work or school may be a separate consideration. Fifty-one percent of the home buyers that Zillow surveyed in 2021 considered their commute a highly important factor as they chose a neighborhood, down just slightly from previous years.
How close is the neighborhood to a location you’ll be commuting to on a regular basis? You can quickly estimate drive times from any listing in Zillow or with your chosen map app, but the true test is to actually try the commute. If possible, try it with no traffic and in rush-hour conditions. Then ask yourself: Is this sustainable?
Is there any green space?
What does your prospective neighborhood offer in terms of nature? Studies increasingly indicate that exposure to nature and green spaces brings health benefits. What’s more, recent research suggests that the availability of accessible and usable green spaces is “significantly associated with neighborhood satisfaction.” Further, if you have canine friends or plan on getting some, nearby parks are indispensable.
What’s the proximity to friends and family?
Home buyers increasingly report that being close to family and/or friends is “very or extremely important” to choosing a place to live, according to Zillow research. And that’s for good reason. Social connections can help us go far.
Recent science indicates that even the mere sense of social connectedness can enhance “achievement motivation” — the will to get things done. In good times and in bad, you’ll be thankful you chose a place that’s near your loved ones and dear friends.
Do you feel a sense of community?
The number of buyers who report the importance of a sense of community or belonging has been steadily increasing since Zillow began asking the question in 2018. Beyond friends and family, community is, of course, another way to find social connectedness.
Is there access to nearby groups or activities that align with your interests? Those interests could involve what you do for a living, what you’re passionate about, or even the area you’re interested in. Is there a homeowner association? If you’re into the arts, is there an art walk? If you’re a film buff, is there an arthouse theater or a multiplex nearby? What about a rec center, or library? A quick call to a librarian or online research can help you determine if a neighborhood has the community amenities you’re looking for.
Visit your prospective neighborhood before you commit
You’ve found a neighborhood you like and you’ve done your due diligence online. You’ve perused the forums and social media groups and asked questions about the community. You’ve searched for what’s important to you, be it access to arts and culture, or proximity to great restaurants. That’s a great start, but online research will only reveal so much.
Now it’s time to visit. If it’s feasible, just go there. Really check out your prospective neighborhood. Talk to that couple walking their dog. Get a coffee at the local cafe and chat up the barista. Think about that sense of community. Do you feel it here?
If you have the means, grab a short-term rental or hotel in the area and see what it’s like at different times of the day and week. Think of it like a stakeout, or a test drive. Is there early morning construction or rush-hour traffic noise? Do neighbors like to party late into the night? Make note of it.
These are the things that can make or break an area you’re considering, and it’s worth doing the hands-on research up front. Take some time and visualize yourself there. Is this place actually a fit?