14 Tips for Finding the Best Neighborhood

This article is the first part in a series about moving:
Part 2 |
How to Find a Quality House to Rent
Part 3 |
Find a Low-Cost Mover without Getting Scammed
Part 4 | How to Plan, Purge, and Pack for Your Next Move
Part 5 |
The Ultimate Moving Checklist for Families

Moving can be one of the most expensive and life-changing financial transactions a family will make.  While a move can be exciting, it is also very stressful — right up there with losing a job and the death of a loved one.  Yikes.

Of course, relocation services can take some of the worry off your shoulders. But they can cost thousands of dollars.  The good news is you can manage a move by yourself, save tons of money, and still have some sanity left on the other end.

In this three-part series, I’ll talk about:

  • How to identify the best neighborhood for your family
  • Unconventional ways of finding a great house (with a focus on rental properties)
  • Finding a trustworthy mover and organizing the details of your relocation

My family and I are in the midst of our fourth long-distance move (including one overseas), and as a single I packed up house six times.  While I’m not a relocation expert (yet), I hope that the skills I’ve gained from our itinerant lifestyle can help others make the experience a little less daunting.

HOW TO FIND A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD

Finding the right neighborhood is a huge factor in determining the success of your move.  Because we all have different needs, tastes and lifestyles, there is no “best neighborhood.”  One person’s paradise might be another’s dungeon.

Here are some methods for finding the right place for you.  I suggest trying as many of them as you can.  Finding a neighborhood is like assembling a mosaic:  each small tile you place will help you see the big picture more clearly.

Fun Online Tools

Of course visiting neighborhoods in person should be at the top of your list.  But with kids in tow and travel expensive, sometimes much of the legwork has to be done long-distance.

NeighborhoodScout.com

Recommended by Money magazine, NeighborhoodScout can help you search for the best neighborhoods for you, with categories such as urban sophisticates, first-time homebuyers, or great deals on great towns. In the advanced search you can even select median home value and an urban, suburban or rural setting.

If you’d like to find out more about a certain place, type its name in the Learn tab and get all sorts of details about a neighborhood and its residents, such as age and lifestyle, education level and income. The description tab is an especially welcome feature, which distills the statistics and gives you a written overview of the neighborhood.

NeighborhoodScout also has a neat Match tool where you can search for neighborhoods that are similar to ones that you already know and love.

You Are Where You Live

Another site that can give you a feel for the type of people that live in a certain zip code is You Are Where You Live.  Based on a “lifestyle segmentation” system called PRIZM from the Nielsen Company, it classifies consumers into 66 categories — like Shotguns & Pickups, Bohemian Mix and Newlyweds — based on census data, consumer surveys, and other sources of demographic and consumer information.

Because PRIZM operates on the principle that “birds of a feather flock together,” it can be a curious exercise to type in your own neighborhood and see if they’ve got your number.

WalkScore.com

If you’re like me and you enjoy being able to walk to shops, restaurants, banks, and schools, WalkScore is an excellent site to know about.  WalkScore ranks the most walkable nabes in the 40 largest cities, or if you want to know about a particular neighborhood or house, you can type in an address or a zip code and get a walkability score from 1 to 100 and a classification like “car-dependent”, “somewhat walkable,” or “walker’s paradise.”

GreatSchools.org

While I believe GreatSchools is the best of the school ranking sites out there, I recommend using it as just one of the many ways you judge a school.  Test scores — upon which most of their ratings are based –are only one aspect of a school’s overall success.

It’s tempting to whittle down your list based on this concrete, easily-obtained information.  But if you are very interested in a neighborhood for other reasons, I would not write the area off simply because its elementary school gets a 2 out of 10.

I have personally known schools to have low ratings on GreatSchools, but to be well-loved places where kids are engaged, challenged and thriving. Oftentimes scores are outdated, don’t reflect the dynamism of the teaching, a new principal, or how your child would do in that school.

Finally, standardized test scores and demographic information cannot replace a personal visit to a school, where you will immediately get a feeling about a place (see below).  Don’t underestimate the mother’s gut!

Also talking to parents who have children currently at the school is another great way to get a reading on whether you would be happy there or not.  (GreatSchools may have a few parent reviews about your school, but I would not count on them as an indicator of how most parents feel about a school.  And really, the most important thing is how you feel about a school.)

Tip: If you are not only looking for a neighborhood, but a city to live in, you might want to check out GreatSchool’s Best Cities to Live and Learn.  The series includes sub-articles on small, midsize and large cities with outperforming public schools, as well as articles which rate towns with great public schools based on median home prices that range from under $100,000 to $800,000 or more.

Researching on the Web

Mamapedia.com

Sarah from Buttoned Up recommends asking the moms at Mamapedia for advice about your new destination.  While this national networking resource probably won’t replace locally based groups (see below), it’s a good place to start asking questions about your city.

Use parent networks like this to find out more than just places to live.  In a search for Syracuse, I found moms exchanging advice about OBs, pediatricians and babysitters.  If you don’t find what you are looking for searching with key words, sign up and post a query yourself.

Tip: If you introduce yourself first — telling a little bit about you and your family and what brings you to the area — you might just sow the seeds of some future friendships.

Neighborhood Reviews in City Newspapers and Magazines

Many cities have a column dedicated to reviewing area neighborhoods each week.  In the Washington Post, for example, the column is called “Where We Live.”    The New York Times has “Living In,”  and New York magazine as well as Time Out Kids both run regular neighborhood write-ups and ratings.

See if you can get an online or paper copy of the local newspaper and magazine and check out the real estate or living section.

I love these articles because they mean an intelligent person has already done a lot of the legwork:  touring the hood, investigating its history, talking to residents, evaluating housing prices and commute times, and identifying some of the pros and cons of living in the area.

Good ol’ Google

Type in your city or county name with some characteristics you desire, such as “walkable,” “historic district” or “charming downtown.”  I found a few fantastic New York suburbs this way, and while we didn’t end up moving there, it gave me hope that there are places that are really right for us if we are just willing to unearth them.

Person-to-Person

Mine Your Personal Networks for Local Contacts

When we told people we were moving to Syracuse, we were surprised at the amount of friends, acquaintances and colleagues who actually knew people who lived there.

To speed the process, try writing an email to everyone you know asking if they know someone with experience in your city.  Once you make the connection, ask each person what neighborhoods they like best and which ones would they recommend for you.

While I had these personal contacts on the phone, I also asked their tips for finding rental houses, parent groups, and schools.

Join Local Parent Groups and Ask Questions

These online networks are invaluable sources of information.  Most membership mom groups will have an email loop that you can join before you move there and some are strictly online networks.  You can search the archives or just fire away.  I’m sure you’ll get lots of input from local moms who have been in the same situation you’re in.

How to find one in your area?  Ask your new-found contacts (or Mamapedia moms).  Search the online version of the local newspaper for articles about parenting or mom groups.  Another way to find people with similar interests is to search Yahoo GroupsGoogle Groups, and MeetUp.

Once you’ve found some, join the ones that you can for free and from a distance.  Introduce yourself in an email and ask members to recommend neighborhoods with the characteristics you seek.

Use Your Alumni Network

Most colleges have an alumni organization.  I can search mine for fellow graduates by city and other things like field of work and date of graduation.

When internet searching was leaving me thirsty for more information about our future city, I found a few people who lived there and who graduated around the same time I did.

Even though I didn’t know them from Adam, I just called and said we’d gone to school together and that I was moving to the area.  Did they have a minute to give me a lay of the land?

Nothing Beats Your Own Eyes, Ears and Sixth Sense

As mentioned before, neighborhoods will appeal to different people in different ways.  A place one person raves about may throw another over the edge.  Just remember that you are on a fact-finding mission and you might end up with a conclusion that will surprise you.

No one source is going to provide you with your answer.  It will be a process of gathering and selecting, like sifting sand at the beach.  Eventually you’ll end up with a few pretty shells to examine further.

That’s when it’s time to pack your bags and go see for yourselves.

Reconnaissance Trip

With no car, three kids and a tight budget, we didn’t visit our new city until we actually had some houses lined up to look at.  But if we had, we would have saved ourselves a lot of time and effort.

Neighborhoods will usually affect you in a visceral way.  You’ll know pretty quickly if it’s a place you’d feel comfortable or not.   This will help you eliminate houses that look great on their own, but whose surroundings would not fit your bill.

Check out the Neighborhood from All Angles

In How to Find a Good Neighborhood, the Life Hacker blog recommends visiting a neighborhood at different times of day and night.

Check out the area at rush hour and on the weekends.  You might find the place comes to life on the weekends (or the opposite), that traffic on the single thoroughfare is unbearable, or that university students hog all the street parking on weekdays.

Lifehacker also advises, “If you depend on public transportation, find out how accessible it is in this area. Drive to and from the house from several different directions, so you see both the scenic and not-so-scenic routes.”

Visit Schools, Libraries and Playgrounds

Make appointments with schools in neighborhoods you think you’ll like.  Ask to tour the school and meet the principal.  Peek in classrooms.  Do the children seem engaged and happy?  Do the staff seem cheerful and friendly?

If you and your children like to frequent the public library, it’s easy to walk in and check out what the local branch has to offer, who uses it, and what is posted on their bulletin board.  Same goes for the town playground.

Go to Open Houses

Even if you’re not serious about buying or renting a house in the area, it doesn’t waste anyone’s time to show up at a scheduled open house.  Touring a local house will give you a more intimate view of a neighborhood, almost from the inside out.  Plus you might get a chance to talk to the real estate agent or other house-seekers about the area.

Eat at Local Hang-Outs

Ask your new mom networks their favorite cafe’s, or go to the town center and arrive at a restaurant at prime time:  say 6 pm on a Saturday night.  You’ll get a sense of the kind of residents the place has and how friendly people are.

You might also visit the YMCA, community center, hardware store or even post office.  Check out the bulletin boards and observe people interacting in everyday ways.

Every place you visit will help you flesh out your picture of a place.  And once you’ve figured out some neighborhoods that will make you happy, it’s time to find that perfect house.

Stay tuned to Frugal Mama for the next three installments:  How to Find a Quality House to Rent, Finding a Low-Cost Mover Without Getting Scammed, and Frugal Mama’s Moving Checklist.

What do you think makes a good neighborhood? How did you find your favorite place?

This article is the first part in a series about moving:
Part 2 |
How to Find a Quality House to Rent
Part 3 |
Find a Low-Cost Mover without Getting Scammed
Part 4 | How to Plan, Purge, and Pack for Your Next Move
Part 5 |
The Ultimate Moving Checklist for Families

Photo credits:  cherry blossoms, bulletin board & townhouses, moving truck , snowy town, fountain

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14 comments

  • Elizabds April 25, 2010, 3:14 pm

    Great, informative post Amy! Your comment about GreatSchools reminded me to share something a friend discovered. Her school district’s test scores looked great on paper, because—she learned too late—they weeded out all the kids who were not ‘average!’ Unfortunately, her dyslexic child suffered for it.

    Reply
    • Amy April 28, 2010, 8:29 am

      Melanie — Thanks for your comment. I’m glad the information can be useful!

      Eliza — Great point about how test scores can be skewed in ways that we couldn’t imagine. Also a lesson about how each parent needs to decide which school is right for HER child.

      Reply
  • Melanie April 23, 2010, 11:22 am

    Your research is incredibly thorough and useful! We’re not planning on moving any time soon, but when/if we do, this will be a godsend. Thanks Amy.

    Reply

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