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Checking up on the Joneses

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Posted: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 10:00 pm

Q: I am looking to buy a house, and have focused in on a particular home I really like. We're about to do inspections, and I want to know more about the neighbors. My Realtor didn't give me any information about them, and she sort of made me feel like I was being a snob to be so curious about the people who live nearby. Is this a reasonable thing to investigate? How can I get more information?

A: When neighbors are really good or really bad, they can have a huge impact on your daily life and the quality of your experience living in your home. On the other hand, many homeowners find their neighbors to be innocuous.

Your Realtor likely does not have any substantive information about the neighbors. Unless they were a truly terrible nuisance, it is unlikely that the sellers provided any information in the disclosure. Also, because neighbor relationships are so highly personal and impossible to quantify, a smart Realtor encourages his or her client to investigate and evaluate this issue on their own. I'd advise you, the smart buyer, to take this element of due diligence into your own hands.

Mindset Management

Some buyers do have snobbish or even discriminatory intentions behind their interest in the neighbors, but there are legitimate things you might want to look into and a number of avenues you can take to gain a comfort level around the folks who might soon be a part of your daily life.

One thing I've found to be true is that what we fear, we often create. If your prospective home has leaning, shared fences or a crumbling, shared driveway, you may fear that the neighbors will be resistant or uncooperative with the needed repairs. So, to find that out before you buy, you might be tempted to go bang on the door and ask them, flat out, what the deal is with the item and if they would be willing to go halvsies with you on the repairs. While I don't find anything inherently wrong with trying to determine their position, you should carefully consider the tone and tenor of your approach before you knock on the door. Neighbors might find it offensive for this to be the first contact they ever have with you, and can read into it a suggested insult to their standards of home maintenance. Take some cookies with you, introduce yourself (and your family) more fully, and be very casual and non-accusatory in the way you bring up these sorts of items - "we were thinking that we might want to do X repair, and wondered if you had thought about doing that, too."

Before you start this process, get clear on what you want to know, and how that information will impact your decision-making process about whether to proceed to buy the home, if at all.

Need-to-Knows

There are a number of core issues that make sense to find out about and from your neighbors, if you can, before you buy or move in:

  • Community Standard Aesthetics/Home Maintenance Practices. You can usually tell this from just spending some time on the street. Look around - are lawns immaculately mowed and houses well-painted? Go deeper - look at whether roofs look to be in good repair and whether windows appear to be updated. Or is there a more relaxed standard? Don't expect to come in and be the wind of change in the neighborhood - if you are unhappy about the way things look, don't expect to come in and start complaining. Alternatively, if you think you'll be a more "relaxed" homeowner, expect to hear from your neighbors if you move in and are more lax about your own home's maintenance than the surrounding homeowners are.
  • Community Tone. You might want to know if the existing neighbors' relationships with one another are (a) warm, friendly and collegial, (b) detached and private, or even (c) angry and hateful.
  • Diversity. Ethnic and other diversity can be add to the richness of your experience as a homeowner, and is a major selling point for resale.
  • HOA Rules and Regulations. If you are buying a condo, co-op, or even a detached home belonging to a homeowners association (HOA), your due diligence process should include a detailed review of any and all rules, regulations and CC&R's - Covenants, Codes and Restrictions. Depending on the property type, these documents may regulate everything from the hour to which you can play music and the type of flooring you can install (if you have neighbors in an attached unit below yours), to the colors you can paint your detached home and whether you can park or install a basketball hoop in your own driveway. Also, make sure you read recent HOA newsletters to get more informal dirt about community goings-on and recent events.
  • Problem Neighbors. Last year, a San Diego, Calif., home buyer sued the seller for not disclosing a particular mentally ill neighbor who threw potatoes at the windows at all times of night and had otherwise been the source of more than 30 police reports by the seller. This sort of thing, as well as neighbors who play loud music late, have parties that clog street parking or otherwise create a nuisance, is valuable information to have at this stage of the game.
  • Neighborhood Noise, Traffic and Behavior Patterns. If there are predictable noise patterns (e.g., trains or church bells), traffic patterns (e.g., nearby school pickup and drop-off times), or even regularly occurring events (e.g., farmers' markets, neighborhood meetings, etc.), you'll want to know. You'll also want to know if the lady next door has a bongo party every full moon, that sort of thing.
  • Crime. Many home buyers want to know as much as possible about petty property crimes, like car break-ins, violent crime statistics, burglaries, and even the numbers and locations of registered sex offenders in the neighborhood.
  • Upcoming Developments. Wouldn't you hate to be surprised by a new commercial development or other major change to the neighborhood after moving in? Find out about proposed neighborhood developments, if any, before you buy.

Action Plan

1. Visit your prospective home and neighborhood at different times of the day, and on different days of the week. Late Saturday mornings when the weather is nice is a good time to catch neighbors out and about.

2. While you have the property to yourself for several hours during inspections, walk around the neighborhood a bit and observe property maintenance and traffic patterns.

3. When you have some time, consider knocking on the doors of a couple of homes in the same block as your potential home. Introduce yourself warmly, and ask any questions you have.

4. Do a detailed review of all HOA disclosures, and make sure to really read the recent HOA newsletters, too.

5. Contact the local police department to ascertain the frequency of crime reports for your potential new neighborhood. Run an address search on any of the numerous Megan's Law Web sites if you are concerned about nearby registered sex offenders. Don't be an alarmist, though - most neighborhoods will have some Megan's Law hits, and the ones that don't (in my experience as a former probation officer and attorney) are usually areas where the population can afford top-notch criminal defense representation, so the sexual predators may not be registered.

6. Search the local newspaper's and your municipal planning agency's Web sites for recent mentions of the neighborhood or street, to see if any new commercial or other developments are proposed that may impact your prospective neighborhood or home.

Don't buy into ethnic or racial stereotypes, when you are doing your neighborhood due diligence. I live in a densely populated, urban block where almost every continent is represented. Surprisingly, the neighbors I would most hate to see move are those whose backgrounds are the most different from my own; I would never have had the chance to get to know some of these lovely friends had they not been my neighbors.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman's Homebuying Handbook," and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.

***

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