How do I learn about a neighborhood that I’m thinking about moving to?
In the course of my business day as a Realtor I find out a lot about the properties I list (and show) simply by visiting them at different times of the day, and I would encourage you to do the same.
Some properties are quiet morning, noon and night. Some change as people come home from work, or on weekends. Here are some observations I’ve made over the years…
If the place you are thinking about buying has limited parking, and you’ll need to park on the street, you better head over at night or on an early Saturday morning (when most people are home from work) to see how easy it is to park.
In some condos or townhome communities, or in the areas close to St. Augustine’s Historic District, parking overnight and on weekends can be a real issue.
You’ll also want to know about any parking restrictions that a homeowner’s association or a municipality has. For example, most people don’t realize that St. Augustine Beach proper requires boats to be in their own building (i.e. a garage, city code 6.07.06) and can’t be parked in a driveway. And there are restrictions on commercial vehicles parked at a residential property, which would matter if you are a roofer (6.03.10). It would be a real corker to find out after you move in to a place that you’re not allowed to park your vehicle, boat, RV or commercial trailer there…so do the research ahead of time.
Your first indication that your neighbor starts his diesel truck at 5 a.m. and lets it idle for 15 minutes may be the first night you spend in your new home. And to be fair, unless you are there for the those correct 15 minutes, you’ll never find out about it ahead of time. The current residents may have tuned the noise out over the years and don’t even think about it anymore. So if you see a big diesel in your potential new neighbor’s driveway, ask about it!
Drive or walk the neighborhood at each part of the day and see if it’s quiet or loud. Drive it on a Friday or Saturday night. If you work nights drive it during the time you’d be sleeping to see what the noise is like during the day, and what time landscapers usually turn up in the neighborhood to mow and trim.
Also, pull up Google maps and see if there is a railroad, airport or factory nearby, and then hang out for a bit during the day (or when you’d be sleeping) to see what the noise is like.
There’s a house I sold once a long time ago in a great neighborhood…I’d seen it morning and night. And then I showed up in the middle of the day when the neighbor had his garage door open. Inside the garage was a derelict vehicle and the garage was piled full of trash. It was the house of a real hoarder. I’m not sure how often the guy had the door open…at least one other time when I went back…but it was a real eyesore when the door was up.
Other times you’ll have the neighbor who sits in their garage all day, watching. Generally this is good thing because they keep an eye out. But it can be a bit unnerving to be hailed every time you run out to the car or mailbox.
The neighbor who has mattreses piled on the side of the house…that neighbor isn’t going to change. If it’s going to be a big deal make your decision right then and there.
And if you drive by on a Saturday night and there are cars parked up and down the block because one of the neighbors throws big parties, drive by on the next weekend to see if it’s a weekly event. If you’re already under contract there should be enough time nested in your inspection period to do this weekend-to-weekend.
And it never hurts to talk to the neighbors either.
Some Realtors don’t like it when you talk to the neighbors because, frankly, some neighbors will try and disparage the house you are planning to buy because they don’t like the current owner.
Most of these “Negative Nellies” will seek you out anyway. Take them with a grain of salt, but turn the tables on them and question them about things you’re interested in…for example, a neighbor that idles a diesel truck or throws parties. That will help you narrow a time down to come back and check on things.
And sometimes there are grains of truth in what the Negative Nellies say. For example, they may be the only source besides the owner who knows a tree hit the house you are planning to buy (and will tell you). Then you can follow up with that as well.
For St. Johns County the online sources aren’t the best for finding out crime in a zip code or neighborhood. The best bet is to simply call the Sheriff’s department at (904) 824-8304 and ask, or visit their website at http://www.sjso.org/. If your home isn’t in the county proper (but actually in the city of St. Augustine or St. Augustine Beach), they can direct you to the correct department.
Their Florida Department of Law Enforcement also has an good online site at http://offender.fdle.state.fl.us/ that tells you where sexual predators are living.
Please be aware that, due to Federal Fair Housing Laws, real estate agents are prohibited from giving you an opinion on the “safety” or “crime” in a neighborhood. For that you need to go to the experts, which would be the local police.
There’s also a resource called GreatSchools.org that “rates” schools based on reviews by parents and others.
Like the neighbors, take GreatSchools with a grain of salt. Having kids in the local schools and having volunteered in the local schools, my impression of the ratings is that they are more a gauge of which schools have the most enthusiastic and internet savy parents. In the schools where there are higher amounts of kids on free or reduced lunch programs (like where I volunteer), where a single mom might be working two jobs and presumably doesn’t have time to waste on the internet rating her kid’s school…well, you be the judge.
Walkability and Amenities
This is one of those real, “Well, duh!” ones where you have to walk the neighborhood. Pull out or walk from the address and find out how long it takes to get to the beach, to the grocery, to the auto parts store, etc.
Walkscore can give you a rough idea of how “walkable” a neighborhood is (on a 1-100), but it’s nothing like just getting on the ground. I did a search on different St. Augustine neighborhoods and Walkscore missed every Publix supermarket, but somehow included every gas station and convenience store as a “grocery,” sometimes counting the same store twice. It also gave a certain neighborhood a very good walkability rating (84)…even though the closest actual grocery (not a convenience store) was probably 2 0r 3 miles away.
Yelp…though it’s mostly known as a restaurant review site…is actually a pretty good resource for finding regular amenities in a neighborhood. In the same searches I did for Walkscore, Yelp found all the Publix supermarkets, auto parts stores, restaurants, etc, that I punched in.
If your a cyclist or commute on a bike (like I sometimes do), get on that bike and ride.
A quick way to die in St. Augustine is to ride your bike on Old Moultrie Road between Kings Estate Road and U.S. 1…it is as unforgiving a stretch of pavement for cyclists as there will ever be locally. If you do something like buy a home in that stretch (like in Willow Walk, for example) and expect to ride from home to anywhere, better invest in downhill armor, a full face helmet and an ejection seat.
Just keep in mind to drive it before you bike it…the danger on any road is usually visible in the car as well.