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How to spot a bad community

In today's overheated housing market, buyers are tempted to finalize a property purchases quickly. No one wants an appealing house and 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 town dump, you could be badly burned. So take a deep breath and make sure that your prospective home sweet home is truly in a location you can live with.

"The real estate market today is so prosperous and hot in many markets that the challenge is finding the time to research your property," says Dorcas Helfant, principal broker with Coldwell Banker Professional, a real estate firm with eight offices in eastern Virginia.

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

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 neighborhood is in the evening.

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Talk to your would-be neighbors. They can tell you whether the area's 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 force, can fill you in on crime rates for the neighborhood.

Zero in on zoning
Don't stop with the neighbors and the police. Check in with the local planning department.

Is that little cabin in the woods you have your eye on going to be surrounded by a huge subdivision next year? The planning folks can tell you what sort of zoning your prospective home is in. Out west, wide-open spaces usually mean little or no government oversight. So the rancher nearby could put in a smelly pig farm or the failing neighborhood restaurant might be able to become a strip club in an attempt to boost business.

"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."

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 an oil rig in your backyard with little or no say in the matter.

Stephen Roulac, author of the upcoming book "360 Housing Mistakes How to Avoid Them," recommends asking an experienced real estate agent who's uninvolved in the proceedings and objective to give a realistic appraisal, not of the house, but its location.

"Find a good broker that you're not working with," Roulac says. "Buy an hour of his time and ask him to 'Tell me everything you think I should know about the property.'"

Differing disclosure laws
Why go to the added expense of hiring a neighborhood inspector? Because state laws differ on how much a seller needs to disclose to a potential buyer.

In Massachusetts, for example, a seller is required to reveal any problems that would affect the use of the property and that are not obvious to the buyer, says Gil Woods, president of Edmunds G. Woods Co. in Holyoke, Mass.

Woods's firm also has a one-page form it requires sellers to fill out asking sellers for information they have on changes in local zoning, noise pollution, airport proximity, road widening, waste treatment and other possible residential nightmares. The document becomes part of the purchase agreement.

If your agent doesn't offer such protections as a matter of course, ask for something similar for your home purchase. Such disclosure documents should give purchasers a fair picture of what they're buying.

Woods says that he's never encountered a situation when sellers have deceived people into buying a home. He says that's in part because sellers realize they'll face legal action.

"Let's say there's a rendering plant a quarter mile down the street that's hidden by bushes," Woods says. "When the wind's blowing from the west it creates a terrible odor. If that wasn't disclosed to the buyer from the seller that would certainly be a case of fraud."

Of course, that's in Massachusetts, a state with fairly tough disclosure laws. A home buyer in a state with less purchaser-friendly statutes might face an uphill battle if the home he thinks is the apple of his eye home turns out to be a lemon. So to prevent unexpected surprises after you move in, carefully inspect your new neighborhood as well as your home before you sign the contract.

Jenny C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.

-- Posted: March 15, 2004
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