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Searching for a neighborhood

By Holden Lewis · Bankrate.com
Friday, August 13, 2010
Posted: 3 pm ET

I recently caught up with Andrew Schiller, founder of NeighborhoodScout.com, a site that helps homeowners find suitable neighborhoods. The idea is simple: a pair of empty nesters, a married couple with children, and a young single all are likely to have different ideas as to what constitutes a desirable neighborhood. NeighborhoodScout helps them to find compatible places.

There are two ways to look for a compatible neighborhood. One way is to, metaphorically speaking, search with a telescope and zoom in. The other way is to start with a microscope and zoom out.

For years, NeighborhoodScout encouraged home seekers to look with the telescope and zoom in. The user would answer a bunch of demographic questions, and the site would reveal which neighborhoods in the specified city would be most suitable.

Schiller says: "The idea was that, instead of people looking at house listings or apartment listings first, they would be able to put in their search criteria of the best places for them and find it instantly among a haystack of opportunities within their commuting range. … Then they could focus on looking at houses in select neighborhoods that best matched them."

But that isn't how most people house-hunt. They don't search for compatible neighborhoods first, then for houses, then for mortgages. Most people identify houses of interest, often with a Realtor's help, then find out if the neighborhood is a good fit.

So the company has developed a new search method -- the one I call the microscope-and-zoom-out method. Using NeighborhoodScoutReports.com, home shoppers can type in the address of a home they're considering, and then the site will deliver a report that describes what the neighborhood is like and which types of people would feel most comfortable there. "Almost like a Carfax for neighborhoods," Schiller says.

You can get a free overview about a neighborhood's cultural character, setting median prices, and the mix of renters and owners. Or you can buy a complete report -- one for $19.99 and five for $49.99. Realtors can buy reports in bulk and give them to their clients.

I got reports for my neighborhood in Jupiter, Fla., and the neighborhood where I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. My current 'hood is characterized as "quiet and urban sophisticates." Basically, this means that there aren't a lot of kids around, and residents are fairly well educated. Indeed, being the parent of a teenager, I wish there were more kids around. As for "urban sophisticates," well, let me put it this way: My wife and I attend the opera and we're both college graduates, but I doubt any of our immediate neighbors would describe themselves that way.

My old stomping grounds in Fort Worth are classified as "walkable, urban sophisticates, hip & trendy and quiet." That seems accurate. If you don't think Fort Worth as a hip and trendy, but quiet, neighborhood, you haven't been to Ridglea. Fort Worth is kewl. Too bad it's so darn hot this time of year.

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1 Comment
Debra James
August 18, 2010 at 6:17 pm

I didn't buy a full report, but I did enter three different addresses to see what the overview would say. My impression is that based upon the overview and sample reports, I probably wouldn't buy a full report. It appears that some very important information would be provided, but there are key details missing that would also sway a person one way or the other.

First, I entered my home address in the San Francisco Bay Area, the overview was Walkable and Hip & Trendy, and Densely Urban. Okay, I buy that for my neighborhood. You can get around town and The Bay without a car, we have coffee shops, organic grocer and supermarkets, restaurants, library branch, major bank branches, post office, and it's very ethnically and racially diverse.

Next, I entered the address of my friend who lives in Da 'Hood. The overview gave the same as for my neighborhood. Now, I am not trying to dog my friend's neighborhood too much, but you can only buy a cuppa Joe at the McDonald's , the one grocery store offer low-end goods at astronomical prices; probably to pay for the security guards in the place, there's no banks, library, post-office, restaurants serve through thick plexi-glass, and white people only drive through there (quickly!) to get to the freeway. Most residents are hard-working people who bought their homes long ago, but there is a very high level of crime in the area.

Lastly, I put in my hometown address in Fairfield, CA. It's right in between SF and Sacramento, and we moved there when my father was stationed at Travis Air Force Base. The overview said almost the same thing as the others, except the setting was Urban. Well, the area that I grew up in was the older part of town 30 years, and with the housing boom of the past few decades, there are a lot more trendier neighborhoods. It's a couple of blocks from the old-downtown, which has a handful of infrequently visited shops; no grocery store, or other amenities that would classify a neighborhood as hip. There is limited public transportation in the city; you better like where you are after 6 p.m., because you have to wait until 6 a.m. the next morning to ride the bus somewhere else. Per city planning, there are no buildings over 4 stories, and there about 11-15 miles of greenbelt until you reach the next larger cities (I always liked this). The town has become a commuter city, and primarily because of the military base, the demographics could probably challenge the U.N. in regards to diversity.

Here are some of the things that were missing that I'd like to know while neighborhood shopping:

How conveniently can I do my routine tasks like food shopping, pharmacy/drug store, banking, mail/shipping, commuting, eating out, parking, dry-cleaning, veterinary, etc.? I don't want to have to go all over town to get these things done, and I want to do them on my way going to or leaving from home.

What are the entertainment & spiritual activities that are close by like library, parks, churches/temples,synagogues/mosques, bars, tennis courts, dog parks, pools, gyms, movies/movie rental, etc.? In a fifteen minute drive I can be hiking in one of the regional parks that overlooks the whole Bay.

The school info provided is only for children, please tell me where I can take some adult courses, either for fun or academic. The local community college is one bus ride from my house.

How long have the people been living in the neighborhood? I want to know how transient it is; longer residents tend to be more involved in their local communities. In addition, what type of community activities are regularly held in the neighborhood? For example, many neighborhoods in my city have street fairs every year.

Everyone is different, but I'd rather live in a smaller house that has all of the things I need close by, and great neighbors, than live in a large house far from many conveniences and hardly see my neighbors.