Families: How to Find a Great Neighborhood

Last Updated Jan 21, 2011 2:04 PM EST

I have a new obsession. It's a real estate website called NeighborhoodScout and whenever I have a few free minutes I'm on it. Why? My daughter is starting kindergarten in the Fall and I'm not terribly impressed with my local school options. (In truth, they make me want to cry.) So my husband and I are thinking of moving and are actively researching the suburbs of New York City.

If we only cared about finding a highly rated school district, there are plenty of websites -- think GreatSchools.org and SchoolDigger.com -- that we could turn to. But we're also looking for an area with low crime, an easy commute to New York City and neighbors who share our educational background and at least some of our values.

Thanks to technology, all of this information and more is available online. But before I came across NeighborhoodScout, I had to use a variety of websites to search for various statistics. Now I only have to go to one destination and I can easily compare a handful of towns in multiple states.

Why not just ask a real estate agent for help? Thanks to the Fair Housing Act, brokers can't divulge this sort of information because it could be construed as steering. So homebuyers are left to do their own research.

Last December I chatted with NeighborhoodScout's founder Andrew Schiller, who gave me a tour of his site. One month later, I've used his website to narrow my search down from 10 towns to three. And one of the neighborhoods I dropped was previously my top pick until I saw the community's crime stats. Here are some of the features I've found particularly useful for a young family like mine:

Selecting a Neighborhood
School Statistics: If you have little ones, few statistics matter as much as those associated with schools. My absolute favorite thing about NeighborhoodScout is that it ranks districts on a scale of one to 10 versus other schools in the same state and around the country. It also provides No Child Left Behind test scores for reading and math for each individual elementary school in a community.

Home Price Appreciation: I never even thought about this statistic until Schiller pointed it out to me. Now, it's the second thing I look at. As Schiller reminded me, buying a home is an investment. So if you don't have a particularly strong reason for living in one town versus another, you're better off selecting the one with stronger home price appreciation.

Crime statistics: We all want safe streets for our little ones. While you could stop by a local police precinct for some crime data, NeighborhoodScout saves you the effort. Higher than average crime statistics is what ultimately made me stop looking at real estate listings in one town in New Jersey.

Demographics: Want to know if a town offers diversity or if the majority of residents have a college degree? Once again, NeighborhoodScout can tell you. It also lists useful information including what foreign languages you'll encounter. Parents looking for a community with other French or Chinese speakers, for example, may find this very helpful.

There's one thing you shouldn't expect from NeighborhoodScout. It can't select the one town that's perfect for you. At some point you'll have to leave your living room and actually visit a few communities to know for sure if you'll be happy in a certain area.

As for me, I feel a bit relieved to know that I only need to do a gut check on three towns.

What criteria did you use to select your town?

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
Tk image courtesy of NeighborhoodScout.
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