Tech helps home buyers find the perfect neighborhood
Prospective homebuyers want to find a community that meets their lifestyle wish list even more than they want to buy a particular size or type of home. Finding the neighborhood with the right level of walkability, the amenities they want and the price range that fits their budget can be a challenge.
Now technology can make the search much easier, offering buyers a plethora of features from a fingertip-driven exploration by app to an overnight stay courtesy of Airbnb.
"Even though most buyers come in knowing what neighborhood they want to live in, sometimes people surprise themselves by ending up in a completely different area after they've looked at various homes," says Andrea Evers, a realty agent with Evers & Co. Real Estate in Washington.
Bay Buchanan, an agent with McEnearney Associates in McLean, Va., says she asks clients who are uncertain about their neighborhood preferences to talk about where they live now, what they like and dislike about it and what they expect to find in their next community.
"Transportation and commuting issues are really important, and sometimes people new to the area don't realize what they're getting into if they choose to live 20 miles from where they work," Buchanan says.
Indeed, finding the right neighborhood can be particularly daunting for people relocating to a new region.
Evers suggests that buyers go to open houses in various neighborhoods as a way to get to know various parts of a region and the types of homes that can be found.
"The most requested neighborhood characteristic of all buyers is walkability," Evers says. "But people don't always realize that if you want to be in walking distance to a Metro (subway) station, you're limiting yourself to very few areas."
Owners.com, a real estate brokerage, provides consumers with direct access to neighborhood pricing information with its Trend Tracker Tool.
"You can search by ZIP code and see the historic price trends and look at whether prices are currently accelerating or decelerating in a neighborhood," says Steve Udelson, president of Owners.com in Luxembourg. "Buyers can decide if it's a good time to buy, and sellers can decide if it's a good time to sell."
The tool provides animated maps that show up to 10 years of price trends and forecasting a year into the future. Buyers can search for both for-sale-by-owner and traditional listings on Owners.com, and the Trend Tracker Tool will automatically load on each page to demonstrate price changes in the neighborhood.
But for buyers who may need more up-close-and-personal time in the neighborhoods to be able to choose the right one, Realtor.com and Airbnb may have just the thing.
A few months ago, the two companies launched a partnership so that when buyers search for a home on Realtor.com and click on a listing for more details, they'll find a link to Airbnb accommodations nearby.
"The Realtor.com and Airbnb partnership offers a 'try it before you buy it' twist on exploring different neighborhoods," says Tapan Bhat, chief product officers for Move.com in San Jose. "Most residential neighborhoods don't have a hotel, but many have homeowners who are willing to rent a room or the whole house through Airbnb."
Airbnb listings can be found on Realtor.com in every ZIP code in which accommodations are available.
"The big benefit of staying in an Airbnb rather than a hotel is that it's like living there rather than being a tourist," Bhat says. "If you go to Paris, you might stay near the Eiffel Tower. But if you lived there, you'd probably be in a more residential area. With Airbnb, you can explore the area at your leisure and get a stronger sense of a neighborhood."
Agents can't tell all
Real estate agents also can be useful resources for home values and neighborhood information, but they have limitations.
The Fair Housing Act keeps real estate agents from steering homebuyers to a particular school district or neighborhood and prevents them from giving information about schools, crime and demographics to their clients. However, agents can suggest other ways of getting this information, which can be essential to making a decision about where to live.
Evers says an independent school counselor can work with families to identify a school that will meet their children's needs, and school websites can provide test scores and other information about programs available at individual schools.
She recommends that buyers go to a school in a neighborhood they're considering and talk to parents who are there picking up their kids.
When it comes to crime, Evers suggests driving and walking around to get a sense of how comfortable you feel in a particular community.
Buyers can go online to find crime statistics about particular areas, Ross says.
"If you're really concerned, it's a good idea to go to a [local neighborhood, block club or homeowners association] meeting where the neighbors talk about the most recent topics of importance to the community, such as new development or crime," Ross says.
Karen Kuchins, an agent with Evers & Co. Real Estate in Bethesda, Md., says she asks clients to prioritize their needs and talk about what they do in their free time. Some buyers want walkability to parks and tennis courts more than to bars and restaurants.
Ross said he sends articles about local neighborhoods to his client and links to local blogs about communities they might be considering.
"Every neighborhood has its own heartbeat and charm," Buchanan says. "There's really no other way to decide if you like it other than visiting."
Buchanan says one couple found a house they love 10 miles past Leesburg, Va., and she was concerned that they didn't realize how painful their commute would be. She insisted that they try out the drive in the morning and the evening. They tested their commute and still decided to buy the home.
"Everyone is different, so you just have to make sure each buyer sees all the options available to them and has an open mind before they make their decision," Buchanan says.
Others recommend going to farmers markets and dog parks and talking to local residents.
"I always suggest that people with children visit the parks and playgrounds in a neighborhood with their kids," says Jenn Smira, senior vice president of Compass. "You can pick up the vibe of a neighborhood very quickly that way. They can see for themselves whether they see themselves there or not."
Dweller: neighborhood demographics from the Census Dept.
Homefacts: crime statistics, demographics and flood risk from RealtyTrac
AroundMe: provides information such as where to find the nearest restaurant, public transportation and retail stores.
Owners.com Trend Tracker Tool: gives historic home values and forecasts home values.
Homesnap: by taking a photo of a home with your phone, you can instantly get information about the property as well as the local schools and neighborhood.
Great Schools: provides statistics and ratings of each school.
airbnb. com: information about amenities in every neighborhood
homesnap. com: allows you to take a photo with your phone and instantly have information about the home, local schools and neighborhood amenities
weinfeldeducationgroup.com/school-selection-service. html: offers in-depth school reports for a fee
GreatSchools. org: statistics and ratings of each school
owners.com/maps: Trend Tracker tool