3 House Hunting Strategies When Moving to a New City
Your Job Relocation Doesn't Have to Be a Nightmare
The fateful day has finally arrived, and after a search that seemed to take forever, you've got a written, signed, and dated job offer from your new employer. But with the fantastic feeling of a new start at a new salary, you get that sinking feeling. MOVING. You're facing a cross-country or cross-state move, and you told the folks there (wherever THERE is), that you'll start at the end of the month. It's not a problem, per se, more like a logic puzzle that needs to be solved.
Not only do you have to untangle yourself from all the commitments where you now live, but if you are facing a cross-country move to a new city, you have to figure out where to hang your hat. So how do you make these decisions quickly so you don't end up living in some crime-ridden neighborhood with a drug addict next door? Fortunately, the internet has some fabulous tools that can help you pinpoint the area in your new city where you will feel almost immediately at home.
1. Scope Out Your New City
First, map out the city. Using Google Maps or some similar web site, Look at the city. Identify the major highways and roadways in town. Enter your new work address and map it within the city. Now, look at the major roadways that lead to it. Keep this information fixed in your mind while you check out some other information online. Is your work location right downtown, or is it located in a suburb in a far corner of the metro area? If you want to keep your commuting times to a minimum, look at nearby cities and suburbs first. Make note of the names of the towns and suburbs (or neighborhoods if a large city like Chicago) that are within 10 miles of your work. You may decide later that you really don't want to live in any of these places, but if you don't have a compelling reason for a lengthy commute, such as children in school, this is a great way to zero in on an area fairly quickly.
The Local Newspaper Is a Great Resource
If you are moving to a mid-sized city or small town, another useful place to start is the local city newspaper. It is easy to find a newspaper online, just search for "Abilene newspaper" (just substitute your city name for Abilene.) Almost every community has a newspaper, with a section containing local news. Look at the sections containing information about schools. You can find out about the schools, arts, and local issues such as tax increases in the community. On the op-ed page, you will get a feel for the types of issues that the community as a whole is dealing with. These issues might include budget restrictions, school bonds, hotly contested public elections, and so on. Say you are moving to an area with 6 high schools. Which ones are featured in the papers? Where are student achievements highlighted? Which schools seem oddly left out? You can get a sense of the character of the local schools by reading about school extracurricular events in the newspaper. Check out the crime report. Take note of the areas where property crimes and violent crimes are occurring. The newspaper should feature news online.
Find out about your new city or town by checking out statistics about your new community on the City-Data web site. This site includes blog posts about cities all over the U.S. where people discuss the quality of the city services, nightlife, and anything else moving-related. Once you have started to form an opinion about where you would like to move, check out the forum posts on City-Data to find out what other people are saying. But don't stop there, look at the other sites listed in this article to get a full-fledged picture of the area you are investigating.
3. Great Schools, Great Neighborhoods
Another way to pinpoint the better neighborhoods in a community is to look for the top-rated schools in an area. Several web sites offer comparison tools that show the schools within a geographic area. Finding great schools isn't a failsafe, but good schools attract stable families who are especially interested in academic achievement and a good education for their children. Some people would argue that these are good neighbors to have, too! So even if you don't have school-aged children, identifying the great schools in your area can clue you in on some of the better neighborhoods in your new community.
The most well known of these school-comparison web sites is Great Schools. This school-ranking web site uses a numbered ranking system for schools with 1 being the lowest-ranked and 10 being the highest. Great Schools factors parent input into their ranking scores but also uses metrics such as student test scores, student-teacher ratios, and variety of extracurricular activities offered. Anyone can also make remarks about a school on the Great Schools web site. When several people make similar types of remarks about a school, you can get an insider's view of the school, its community values, and whether or not it will be a good fit for you. Keep in mind, however, that when only one or two people leave comments about a school, their comments may or may not reflect on the actual realities within a school district.
Another school comparison web site called SchoolDigger uses public data from school districts within larger metro areas and some states to rank its schools from 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. This web site appears to be affiliated with Trulia, the Real Estate web site, but it doesn't offer information about schools in every state. While I was able to look at information for my current school district in Arizona, where I now live, I was unable to find data for schools in the state of Iowa, where we are exploring a job relocation ourselves. Nevertheless, even for states where this site doesn't have access to student test scores, you can still look at demographic data such as student-teacher ratios and numbers of students in schools. I really liked the SchoolDigger site and I imagine it is just a matter of time before it becomes highly competitive with the Great Schools site.
Both of these sites allow you to view a map of the schools in an area, then view the elementary, junior high or middle schools, and high schools. Once you have identified schools that appeal to you, you can link directly to a housing search for schools in those neighborhood school districts. Keep in mind that these web sites don't promise 100% data accuracy, so if you are serious about limiting your housing search within a school district, use the power of the internet to your advantage and search for the school on the school district web site. If you have access to a printer, use Google Maps to print out a map of the school district boundary, and if you have narrowed down to one preferred school, CALL THE SCHOOL to find out about their enrollment policies. Why? Because in some larger school districts, such as Chicago, some of the most highly-sought-after schools limit their enrollment through a lottery system. So be on the safe side and call your projected school and ask. Whatever you do, don't rely on the advice of realtors to learn about school boundaries. Asking a realtor about the schools in an area is like asking your dentist to give you advice about your pet's heart condition.
Once you have identified a school district where you want to live, locate the district's website and identify the school boundaries to make sure they match up with the information from your online research.
4. Housing Sites Can Help You Find a Good Neighborhood Match
Several online housing search sites can help you to look for short term rentals and sublets, longer-term rental situations, and new and used homes for sale. Most housing sites, whether they are geared to renters or homebuyers, offer a tremendous amount of information about the neighborhood and community surrounding each listed home.
Renters looking for a reliable rental situation can look to several web sites to look for rental properties. Many people find that in a quick-job-change scenario, renting is a great way to get your feet wet in a community before making a commitment to a particular location by purchasing a home. Renting is also faster than purchasing, since closing a home can take an average of 60 days or more in the current economic climate.
On Hotpads.com, you can enter search criteria for the type of rental you are looking for, such as house or apartment, number of bedrooms, features, and amenities, and you can view the location of the rentals on a city map. If you have a family and already have an idea where you want to send them to school, finding a suitable rental may be as easy as entering your search criteria within your desired school's zip code, and voila! Now, most of the headache is taken out of your decision.
Hotpads also shows heatmaps (maps that show color-coded data by geographic area) for a number of different types of data. You can view a color-coded map of residents per-capita income, highest-to-lowest priced housing, or number of foreclosures in the area. The information on these web sites is so information-rich you can almost get lost in it!
Rentals.com is another popular web site for renters. This site offers its services to both landlords and tenants, and though you won't find heatmaps on this site, you will find a comprehensive listing of apartments and rental homes, and often can find online specials. If you have a home that you need to rent out, you may want to look into the services that this site offers.
For me, there are three sites I return to again and again when my family is in "job hunt" mode. I can use these real estate resale sites to quickly look at the cost of homes in my area, and use the data on these excellent web sites to learn more about neighborhoods, crime statistics, and find out what is the average price per square foot people are paying in a certain area, and whether the housing prices in an area are on the rise, falling, or staying still. With all of this information at my fingertips, finding the right housing should be easy, right?
Well, yes and no. After buying 4 different homes during my married life, my personal experience is that online photos of houses and online tours cannot replace the actual experience of walking through a home. I always see homebuying sites as a first step and not the ultimate deciding factor. Just as a person wouldn't buy a car online without first taking it for a test drive, an ad for a house online cannot replace the expertise a realtor can bring to the home buying experience. So do look at my top four sites, but I urge you to get a realtor working for you after you have explored the information.
My Top Real Estate Sites
- Trulia is a web site that allows you to search for new, foreclosed, retail, and rental real estate in any location in the United States. You can search by zip code or city name, and then find information about sales and rental trends, see listings of homes for sale or for rent, and then find a realtor who specializes in that area of the country. This site offers excellent statistical information that will help you to learn about the neighborhoods you are looking in and then hook you up with a real estate professional when you are ready to take that step. Trulia uses heat maps (color-coded neighborhood maps) to show all kinds of information such as average sales prices for housing. The schools section of Trulia lists elementary, junior high, and high schools in all of the school districts for a given locality, and uses a 5-star rating system showing parents' comments for each school. If you are shopping for a mortgage loan, Trulia has links to its mortgage center too. Because the information on this site is free, there's no pressure to sign up with a realtor if you use the information on the site.
- Zillow offers much the same information as Trulia, and includes listings for resale, new, and foreclosed homes, as well as rental homes and apartment rentals. Zillow also has a mortgage center and access to real estate professionals. I really like the statistics on this site though. If you are looking at moving to a new city surrounded by small towns and are trying to decide if commuting from a small town makes sense for you, you want to learn what types of people inhabit the place. On Zillow, you can view all sorts of demographic information about the people living in a certain area, and see the information displayed in easy-to-understand pie charts and graphs. For example, I can learn what percentage of households have children and what percentage are childless, what the average commute times are for the residents, and what the relationship status and approximate age distribution is. From this information, I can decide if a neighborhood is fully of families with children, retirees, or young professionals. This information is golden since a house or an apartment is only as good as the neighborhood where it is located. Zillow also lists schools and their addresses with student-teacher ratios listed for each school.
- Realtor.com is the official website of the National Association of Realtors, and unlike the above two sites, its approach is more like a full-service online magazine. I think the philosophy behind this site is to let the realtors do the work of finding people a home while helping homebuyers become informed homeowners. This site is chock-full of mortgage advice for buying or refinancing a home and includes home articles about home maintenance, insurance and includes links to HouseLogic, a site for new homeowners sponsored by the National Association of realtors. You can still use this site to search for homes listed in your search area, and if you are ready to move, the Moving, Mortgage, and Homebuying information in this full-service site might be your best last step in the home search process. I always recommend that a buyer use a realtor who is knowledgeable about their home territory. A good realtor will help you with the ins and outs of the home-buying process, while a great realtor will help you to get the best possible deal at a well-negotiated price.
- Homes.com is a slightly-less feature-rich site than the others I've mentioned, but the site is easy to navigate and offers homes for sale, homes for rent, and prices of recently sold homes. This site has a "how much will your move cost?" calculator that is worth a look if you are planning to use a full-service moving company and are planning to ship items by weight.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2010 Carolyn Augustine