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Inspect the neighbourhood

In today's overheated housing market, buyers are tempted to finalize property purchases quickly -- no one wants an appealing house and a good mortgage deal to slip through their fingers.

But if that red-hot house turns out to be sitting on the major route to the city dump, you could get burned. So take a deep breath and make sure your prospective home-sweet-home is truly in a location you can live with.

"The challenge in today's real estate market is finding the time to research your property," says Sylvana Chambers of Chambers Developments Inc., in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. "The buyer is under pressure to make a quick decision."

You're buying more than a house
In most cases, you can scope out your new neighbourhood at the same time you take a closer look at the house itself.


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Drive by your home-to-be at different hours of the day to get a sense of the community. Spend some time just hanging out. Then drive to your job or to the school your children will attend.

If the house is vacant, ask if you can sleep over one night to find out how quiet or noisy the neighbourhood is in the evening.

Talk to your would-be neighbours. They can tell you whether the area is on the local airport's most direct flight path. Or, if the city plans to widen the road, whether you'll wake up one day to a huge chunk gone from your front lawn.

And current residents, as well as your community's police service, can fill you in on crime rates for the neighbourhood.

Zero in on zoning
Don't stop with the neighbours and the police. Check in with the local planning department. Will that little cabin in the woods you have your eye on be surrounded by a huge subdivision next year? The planning folks can tell you what sort of zone your prospective home is in.

Out west, for instance, wide-open spaces usually mean little or no government oversight.

So, a nearby rancher could put in a smelly pig farm or the failing neighbourhood restaurant might become a strip club and no one will say "boo."

In addition, mineral rights may not convey with rural properties. In these cases, if someone else owns the mineral rights and they decide to lease them, you could end up with drilling equipment in your backyard with little or no say in the matter.

Calver recommends speaking to three or four residents who can reveal more about a neighbourhood. Be candid and ask, "What should I know? Is this a nice area?" He adds that if you speak with local groups and associations, they often know everyone in the area and can tell you if there is a history of problems with plumbing, etc.

Differing disclosure laws
Provincial and territorial laws differ on how much information a seller is obliged to disclose to a potential buyer. In Nova Scotia, for example, as in many provinces, the obligation is complex and difficult to interpret. "There is a requirement that the seller completes a property disclosure statement," outlining physical aspects of the property, says Chambers.

"However, other more subtle issues -- such as noisy neighbours, adjacent orchard spraying or a poor school system -- are really issues that the buyers, working with a trustworthy agent, will have to learn for themselves."

It isn't mandatory for an agent to ask sellers for information they have on changes in local zoning, noise pollution, airport proximity, road widening, waste treatment and other possible residential nightmares. But if a buyer asks for this information, a seller must provide it.

"In Canada, there is latent versus patent disclosure," says Bob Linney, communications director for the Canadian Real Estate Association in Ottawa. "One is concrete and is known about; the other is called stigmatized that is a rumour, for example, that a quarry is being built down the street. Those are tough to disclose where there is no obvious knowledge. Again, until an actual application is made (for zoning changes) you can't expect them to disclose it. That is constantly the dilemma you can get caught in."

If your agent doesn't offer such protections as a matter of course, be sure to ask for a disclosure agreement to give you a fair picture of what you're buying.

Calver says he's never encountered a situation when sellers have deceived people into buying a home. He says that's largely because sellers realize they could face legal action.

"There's a certain 'buyer beware' attitude," he says. If you've had an inspection and there are no termites or major problems, "it's difficult to come back to an agent and say, 'You didn't tell me about this truck that goes by the house every hour.'"

A home buyer in a province with fewer purchaser-friendly statutes might face an uphill battle. So to prevent unexpected surprises after you move in, carefully inspect your new neighbourhood, as well as your home, before you sign the contract.

-- Posted: Sept. 20, 2004
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