Inspecting your neighborhood, not just your house
found your dream house, but before you close on it, make sure it isn't in a
nightmare of a neighborhood.
Buyers in a hurry often are tempted to finalize a property purchase
quickly. No one wants an appealing house and good mortgage deal to slip through
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
"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.
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 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 decides 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 a real estate salesperson
who's totally 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
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,
Woods' 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 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: July 1, 2003