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Look before you leap

You've seen it happen in the movies. The happy family moves to a quaint community and all is well. Then they discover the secret burial ground/alien landing site/psychotic serial killer and before you can shout, "Don't open that door!" they're cursing the day they unpacked that first box.

The real-life lesson: It pays to find out about a place before you move.

Many people make the decision to move "on an emotional basis," says Ron Phipps, principal of Phipps Realty Inc. in Warwick, R.I. Instead, he advises, do some homework and look before you leap. "Before you commit to move, step back, reflect, pause, then commit."

Like anything else these days, start with the Internet. City, county and board of education Web sites will supply a lot of good information and statistics, things like housing and rental costs, tax rates, SATs and per pupil spending for the local schools.

Start with Bankrate's newly updated Cost of Living calculator to compare everything from home prices to tooth paste in different cities throughout the United States.

Want to find out the employment rate, per capita income and other financially salient points? Check out the local Chamber of Commerce and Better Business Bureau sites. Then go to a library or bookstore and pick up the "Places Rated Almanac."

Learn how much money the new neighbors are making, whether they've been to college and what they really spend on utilities and transportation at Yahoo's real estate site.

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But be wary about considering statistics in a vacuum, says Phipps. "You also want to have the second piece of it: what the numbers mean," he warns. For instance, just because one city spends a higher amount per student in the school system doesn't mean the education is better.

For the Cliff's Notes version, study the local paper. You can get a lot of information, especially about the community budget, from small local weeklies and biweeklies. If yours isn't online, it's worth the money to get a short subscription or order a couple of back issues. And while you're doing that, talk to the paper's staffer about what's making news.

You can also speak with county managers or their staff members, says Phipps. How accessible is the local government? What are the big issues? What changes, if any, are on the horizon? One good clue to your new community's financial health: What's its bond rating?

Follow the money
You also need to zero in on how your new location will affect your pocketbook. As you learn about average incomes and housing costs, you'll get a sense of how the cost of living compares to your current address. But there are other issues that can also pack a financial punch.

"In our area, being close to the water is a major asset in tax value," says Phipps. But that also means you need to figure in the cost of insurance, particularly flood insurance, and the installation and maintenance of sea walls, he says.

Bad public schools could mean shelling out extra for private tuition or spending time ferrying kids to a distant public alternative. Either visit or talk to some of the local parents.

Analyze how the move could affect your earning potential. If you're following a job, what happens if you don't like the new position? Are there other employers in the area offering similar work? If not, you might want to rent your house or make other temporary arrangements that leave you an escape clause.

In the same vein, investigate which employers generate the money and jobs. Is the community dependent on one or two companies or industries for its economic health? In one Maine town, the local paper mill is the main employer, and there's talk it may close, says Phipps. "It's a tough situation."

You also want to know how well the local government handles money. Is your new city or county contemplating a tax hike, special assessment or rate hike? Their decisions could have a big impact on your property values, as well as your checkbook, says Phipps.

And be dogged when it comes to getting information on local health hazards and nuisances, says Phipps.

Where is the airport and will your new neighborhood be on the flight path? Are there any major highways or roads planned that will affect your community-to-be? Have there been problems with local water or wells? Are there local issues with chemical contamination, power lines or radon? Where are the waste dumps? And if the area has a Superfund site, you'll probably find it online.

"You want to do your due diligence," Phipps says.

Visiting time
You can get a lot of information through phone calls and the Internet. But nothing beats the personal touch.

"Scoping things out ahead of time is really important," says Shari Steiner, co-author of "Steiner's Complete How-to-Move Handbook," who reports that the worst relocation horror stories she hears are from people who don't visit before they move.

"Walk the streets, drive around," says Phipps. "Make it a point to engage the community firsthand."

Is there a restaurant that a lot of the locals frequent? Go when it's crowded and eavesdrop. Start a conversation, and tell whoever you're talking with that you're thinking of moving. "It's amazing what people will volunteer," he says.

If there are local parks and public facilities, like pools or tennis courts, are they in good shape? Does the community hold classes or events there?

Want to find out if the kids in the neighborhood are the same age as your own? Check out the play equipment, says Leslie Levine, author of "Will This Place Ever Feel Like Home?" If it's older or in disrepair, chances are the little ones have moved on to high school or college.

Check out the local church or synagogue, too, she says. "They're wonderful sources of information and they're looking for prospective members."

Quality of life
Beneath all the stats and the conversations, what you really want to know is: What's it feel like to get up every morning and go through your day in this place?

Make a list of what you (and everyone else in the household) might need to be happy. "If I'm into theater, are there theater resources available?" says Phipps. "If I'm into triathlons, are there training facilities available?"

And if you're playing with the idea of sharpening your job skills or retraining in another area, does the area have one aging community college or a thriving network of universities?

Look at any special needs, too. If any family members are allergic or asthmatic, how will the local climate or air quality help or hinder their health? A quick call to a local specialist or health clinic can help. Do any of the kids need special ed or advanced learning classes? If so, how difficult are they to get into and how good are they? For a real-life answer, contact local groups for families dealing with similar issues.

If kids' activities, such as Boy Scouts or Little League, are a big part of your family life, check in with the local chapters of these organizations. Not only do you make sure that your child will have similar outlets, but the parents can offer some great insights into your home-to-be.

Want a true picture of the type and frequency of crime? Call the local precinct. Most police departments have a community liaison or public information officer who will be happy to take a minute and talk to you about your prospective neighborhood.

But even after you've done your research you may stumble across a few, happy, hidden surprises.

When Phipps moved to Rhode Island, he learned that although the state has just one million residents, it's home to two large culinary institutes. As a result, locals have hit the mother lode when it comes to fine dining in just about every imaginable cuisine, he says. "People come here, and they fall in love with it."

The best advice to anyone contemplating a move: Do plenty of research and go there in person, says Phipps. "Because you don't want to leap without seeing where you're landing."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.


-- Posted: July 7, 2004

Guide to Moving
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