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Smart buyers put on reporter's hat

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Posted: Sunday, March 1, 2009 10:00 pm

It's risky to buy a home in an area you know nothing about. Plan to investigate the neighborhood before you buy to make sure you'll like living there.

Buyers who know homeowners in the neighborhood have a ready source of information. Buyers transferring from out of the area face a bigger challenge.

Your future employer can recommend neighborhoods, and may know people living there that you can contact. Subscribing to a local newspaper will give you access to local news and events.

There is some neighborhood information online. Check Realtor.com, the National Association of Realtors' national Web site. Go to "Find Neighborhood" on the home page. You might also find information by using your search engine to find a certain neighborhood.

Good public schools are a priority with most homebuyers, even if they don't have school-age children. Housing demand and property values tend to be higher in areas that have good school systems. These neighborhoods may hold up better during down cycles in the housing market.

Due to overcrowding in some areas, you might not be able to send your child to the school closest to your home. If a local school is important to you, plan to visit the school to find pertinent details.

In areas where the public schools don't live up to your expectations, make sure that there are good alternate private schools that have space available for new students. It's difficult to get in to the best private schools in places where demand is high.

Good public transit and easy access to urban centers are key attributes of sought-after neighborhoods. An increasing number of homebuyers want to become less dependent on using a car. Investors who are buying foreclosure properties at discounted prices should keep this in mind. Tenants also favor housing that's close to public transportation.

Today's buyers favor convenience to shopping, cafés and entertainment. Neighborhoods that are within walking distance of an attractive commercial center are in high demand. Houses in such neighborhoods may command a premium price.

Unfortunately, a convenient location can also be one where the crime rate is higher due to easy access. Check with the local precinct for information about crime in the neighborhood. Ask local homeowners if they have experienced criminal activity locally.

Is there a neighborhood watch group? If there is a neighborhood homeowner association, either mandatory or voluntary, ask to see copies of minutes from recent board meetings. This will give you an insight into homeowners' concerns.

Plan to visit the neighborhood several times at different hours of the day and night. Talk to residents to find out what they like and don't like about where they live. A good way to find local homeowners to talk to is to attend Sunday open houses in the neighborhood.

It's important to find out if there are any planned changes in or around the neighborhood that could impact the quality of your life. For example, a new public transit station or freeway close by could boost property values. However, if a freeway will run directly behind the house you're considering, this could negatively impact its value.

Pay attention to the consistency of the housing in the area. Are the homes well-maintained, or are they run-down? A low number of "For Sale" signs can be a good indicator that homeowners move in to the neighborhood and stay put. Evidence of remodeling is also a good sign.

A lot of "For Sale" signs can signal a problem. Surplus inventory might not diminish quickly or easily if job growth in the area is low or diminishing.

THE CLOSING: This would lead to a decline in property values.

Dian Hymer is a nationally syndicated real estate columnist and author of "House Hunting, The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers" and "Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer's Guide," Chronicle Books.

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