It's all coming together: You've got your eye on a home, and you've called your agent at all hours to tour the place repeatedly and make sure it's absolutely perfect. You're ready to lock this down and make an offer.
But wait! Have you really gathered all the intel you possibly can?
It's tough, we know, to get an accurate feel for a neighborhood—especially if you're new to the area or afraid someone else will swoop in on your dream home if you don't act fast. Sure, you can check crime rates and do online research about schools and local events. But there's one other very simple thing you can do to uncover a fountain of immediate info: Talk to the neighbors.
Because who knows the area better than the people who already live there?
“Most people are willing to talk with prospective buyers,” says Randy Rabney, co-CEO of the Lichtman-Rabney Group in Maplewood, New Jersey. “If you see a neighbor outside, just politely approach them, tell them you are considering buying the house for sale on the street, and ask if they mind answering a couple of questions. I have never seen a person refuse.”
Although it might feel awkward to approach strangers before or after looking at a house, Rabney says savvy buyers will make a habit of it.
Not sure what to ask? Here are five insightful questions that will help you glean some useful info.
1. 'How would you describe the area, and what it's like living here?'
This is a great open-ended question that allows neighbors to spill whatever comes to mind first—which is often the things that they love (and hate) the most about their neighborhood.
“This opens the door to anything they may want to share without restriction,” says Al Cannistra, a REALTOR® in Texas.
While real estate agents are limited in the information that they can disclose to you about a neighborhood, neighbors don't have such restrictions. They can potentially offer realistic information about neighborhood safety, demographics, and anything else you’d like to know.
But beware, Cannistra cautions: If you disclose which house you're considering, there's always the chance that personal relations with the seller could taint the neighbor’s response. And of course, people's perspectives can differ. Focus on getting a good feel for the vibe of the neighborhood, and make sure to ask several neighbors the same questions, so you can get a more accurate picture.
2. 'If you could change anything at all about the neighborhood, what would it be?'
Cannistra suggests following up with this question, which will allow the person with whom you’re speaking to discuss any drawbacks to the area, such as limited parking, barking dogs or other inconveniences that might become big annoyances if you purchase a home in the area.
3. 'Do particular schools have a reputation for being strong or weak in a certain area?'
Schools should be a major concern, even if you don't have kids. That's because a good school district usually translates into higher property values; potential buyers with families will want to be in the right district. You'll find lots of resources online to learn about school system ratings, but nothing beats hearing about the personal experience of families who have kids enrolled in the local schools, says Ali Wenzke, a moving expert from Chicago and author of "The Art of Happy Moving." You should also ask the neighbors about the specific school programs that your children need.
“Do you need a school with individualized education programs, gifted programs, or before and after care?" Wenzke says. "Speaking to neighbors can help you learn what a school is really like, which is difficult to find online.”
4. 'How do people like to socialize in the neighborhood?'
Were you hoping for backyard barbecues and couch karaoke parties? Running partners and wine buddies? Do you prefer a peaceful vibe, or do you find quiet to be eerie, and possibly sinister?
“This is a great question if you want to find out whether you're a good fit for the neighborhood,” Wenzke says. “Neighbors may say that there's not a neighborhood social scene, or that there are block parties and an open-door policy. You can find out if socializing happens through the community center, religious organizations, school, dinner parties, sports, or book clubs.”
5. 'Is there anything that I should be aware of with this property?' Once you’ve asked about the neighborhood vibe, it’s time to turn your attention to the specific home you're considering. Although sellers are legally required to disclose certain information, neighbors might be willing to dish more on the property—revealing things that weren't evident in the disclosure, says Traci Shulkin, a Boston-based real estate agent.
“Neighbors love to talk, so if the property you are thinking of buying has run into some problems, then the neighbors would know all about it,” Shulkin says. “They could also give you the back story of why the property is on the market, which is all good intel for negotiation.”
So next time you head to an open house, don't forget to set aside a few minutes to chat with the neighbors—what they say could cement your decision that this is the perfect place to live, or it could save you from making a big mistake.