When you look at homes to buy, you know the neighborhood is going to influence your life in that house. However, in a tight housing market, finding out everything you need to know often falls by the wayside because you're under pressure to snag a house fast.
Doing advance research on communities has become more important than ever. You need to go into home buying process with a good idea of which areas would be better for you and what limits you want to impose on your search so you can make a snap decision that actually works more easily.
This is one of many reasons why working with a real estate agent to find a home is so important. When you know what you're willing to compromise on and what you absolutely want to avoid, the agent can give you a much narrower list of homes to look at that are in communities with the features you require, thus saving you a lot of time.
Sprawl and a lack of things to walk to are nearly unavoidable now unless you're looking in select metro areas (e.g., Manhattan) or in some of the newer village-type communities that have a central commercial or community center. Many people don't like this but accept it as a feature of modern life; they know it may change as communities decide to redo how typical neighborhoods are set up in the future. Others aren't so keen on having to drive everywhere, be it because they don't have a car, have many family members relying on only one car, or who don't like the effect on the environment of all the driving.
You need to decide where your limits are regarding buying a house that is or isn't walking distance from stores and other places like post offices. Proximity to public transportation may take the edge off, of course, but take the time to decide just how far you can be from the bus stop or from a place to walk to.
Crime Rates and Types
Evaluating the crime risk in an area is nothing new, but the amounts and types of crimes can make your experience in a place good or bad. For example, information about a house near a mall may show that the crime rate is high, but a closer look could reveal that most of the crime is petty shoplifting at the mall, with nothing really happening around the houses. Conversely, a neighborhood may have a low crime rate, but those few crimes could turn out to be shootings. Determine which neighborhoods are really going to be too much for you so your agent can avoid looking there.
Your real estate agent wants you to buy and knows that the best chances of buying occur when you see a house that meets your requirements. Give the agent your list of absolute nos, absolute yeses, and the maybes that you'd be willing to compromise on. That will make your search for a single-family home easier.