Finding your niche

How to look into a potential neighborhood to make sure it’s the right fit for you

By Marilyn Kennedy Melia CTW Features

A long with three bedrooms and three baths, another top priority in Dawn and Scott Berry’s home search was, “a community feel where neighbors trust each other and help each other out if and when needed,” relates Dawn, of Vista, Calif. Such elusive, subjective information isn’t usually noted in home listings. The sales staff in the new housing development the Berry’s were interested in also didn’t offer any answers. Indeed, even if they hold opinions, real estate professionals are guarded about sharing them, since federal fair housing rules prohibits any steering customers to or away from any area.

But a serendipitous encounter with the construction supervisor of the development filled in the blanks for the Berry’s, giving them the comfort to buy. “He told us the who, what, when and where’s of the neighborhood … who gets along, who hangs out, who doesn’t pick up after their dog, who moved from where,” she relates.

“Nothing replaces walking the streets” of a prospective neighborhood, and chatting up anyone who appears willing to dish, says Paul Purcell, managing director of real estate brokerage William Raveis in New York.

While he recommends that buyers walk a neighborhood — not just once, but on a weekday, weekend, and day and night, because neighborhood character can change within hours — Purcell acknowledges that foot exploration provides limited information, especially when no one is around to supply news.

Listen to virtual neighbors

Plenty of residents blog about neighborhood and block-by-block news. All one has to do is “google a neighborhood name and blogs and listings will come up,” Purcell says.

Sometimes, online sleuthing impacts the buying decision, says Lee Williams, a broker with Charles Rutenberg LLC in New York. For instance, StreetEasy (owned by Zillow) offers more than 500 different neighborhood discussions, and reports of building residents complaining about pets or issues with building management can convince clients to look elsewhere. Moreover, once someone lives in an apartment complex or neighborhood, there’s often an internal email group. But those conversations are limited to current residents, so that gripes and complaints won’t damage values, says Purcell.

Peering in shadows

Simply because populations are more dense, in urban areas neighborhood blogs are more plentiful. For every ZIP code in the country, though, there’s a treasure trove of data, says Andrew Schiller, founder of

Each of the dozens data points he’s collected for distinct areas don’t directly indicate the character of a place, but taken together “we can learn a lot about the shadow of that data,” Schiller says.

Areas with a similar character, such as “family-friendly” or “urban sophisticates” have similar data points, like the percent of the population in certain professions or the number of single-person households, and taken together the data cast a “shadow” indicating what predominant lifestyle is in the place, Schiller explains.

Schiller’s service offers free descriptions

of areas when users input an address or town name. Under “Boise, Idaho,” for instance, the part of the description reads: “One thing noticeable about Boise, although not a huge city, is that it has a large population of people who are young, single, educated, and upwardly mobile career starters.”

Happiness in numbers

“There is no ‘bad’ place,” says Schiller, “but there are locations that are going to make some people happy and others not.”

It’s healthier to live in a happiness-inducing place, according to at least one study published in 2013 in the journal Social Science & Medicine. Researchers asked 6,740 people age 50 and over how friendly they felt their neighborhood was, and whether they felt they belonged there.

Those with positive neighborhood perceptions had a 48 percent reduced risk of stroke compared to those without favorable attachments.