Home buyers often find the home of their dreams, and hurry to close the deal before it slips through their fingers. But if that appealing house turns out to be smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood fraught with problems you haven’t investigated, your dream home may quickly turn into the stuff of nightmares.
Dorcas Helfant, a broker with Coldwell Banker Professional in eastern Virginia, says, “The real estate market today is so prosperous and hot in many markets that the challenge is finding the time to research your property.” Particularly if you are moving to a new city that you aren’t familiar with, it pays to do your homework before finalizing your purchase. You’re buying more than a house, you’re buying a neighborhood.
Evaluate the traffic patterns that will affect access to your house. You need to be sure that the road in front of your house isn’t a frequently traveled route to the town dump or the Walmart down the street. Drive by the home at different times of the day to get a sense of the community and the level of road traffic and foot traffic. Spend as much time as you can just hanging out around the property, to get a feel for what it would be like to live there. Take a drive to your job, the stores you plan to frequent, your doctor’s office, or the school your children will attend. If the house is vacant, you can even ask the sellers if they’ll let you spend one night camping out in the house to assess how noisy the neighborhood will be in the evening and in the early hours of the morning.
Talk to other people who live in the neighborhood. You can even talk to city planners to see if the city plans to widen or redirect the road. Check the zoning of the neighborhood and surrounding areas to determine whether one day you’ll have to turn over a huge chunk of your yard to make way for urban development. “In rural properties in counties without strict zoning, what you see is not always what you get,” says Helfant. “It may be wide open to any type of zoning. What you have to understand is that if it’s in the middle of nowhere it may not be like that forever.” One other thing that may seem like a minute detail is the mineral rights to the property. If the seller does not convey mineral rights and decides to lease them or sell them to someone else, you could end up with an oil rig or a drilling operation in your backyard without having to give permission.
Current residents or the local police force can give you information about crime rates for the neighborhood. Along the same lines, check out how far the house is from vital community services such as police, fire department, hospitals, and other services you hope you’ll never need to use. Ask city officials whether you will be able to build later if you want to, and be sure to find out about sewer or septic requirements for the area. The local utility companies can usually give you a ballpark idea of what utility costs in the area have been in recent months.
In some states, the law requires a seller to disclose certain information to prospective buyers. In Massachusetts, for example, sellers must reveal to potential buyers any hidden problems that would affect their use of the property. Many realtors give sellers a form to fill out asking for any information they have about zoning, noise, proximity to airports and waste treatment, road widening prospects, and other potential nightmares that may affect the area. That document then becomes part of the purchase agreement and the seller is legally responsible for the information being accurate and complete.
A poorly-informed home buyer who purchases a house just because of its appearance might face an uphill battle if the neighborhood turns out to be the pits. It’s easy to avoid having to deal with unexpected surprises after moving in―all you have to do is spend some time inspecting your new neighborhood before signing the contract.