When most people describe their dream home, they start by talking about an open floor plan or perhaps a cozy screened-in porch. For many people, though, buying in their perfect neighborhood is even more essential than finding just the right house. After all, a house can be remodeled and decorated to match your taste, but a neighborhood can’t be changed as quickly.

In the Washington area, where the median sales price was $445,000 in December, buyers will find a wide range of neighborhoods from residential to urban even within the city limits. In the close-in suburbs and farther reaches of the region are traditional suburban subdivisions, town centers with walkable amenities, older villages with new appeal and communities with single-family houses built on an acre or more of land.

While you may be instantly drawn to one type of community or another, deciding a specific neighborhood requires some extra legwork. Fair housing laws require real estate agents to refrain from steering people to one area or another and restricts their ability to talk about “good” schools or “good” neighborhoods. However, they can direct you to resources that you can use to learn more about specific communities.

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Here are six features to look for in a neighborhood:

  1. Schools: Schools are a natural priority for families with children, but even if you don’t have kids, buying in a well-rated school district can keep your home’s value strong. A recent analysis by Metrostudy, a property data analysis company, and school ratings site Niche.com found that home prices in counties with highly rated school districts were 25 percent higher than neighboring areas. Check out Niche.com and GreatSchools.org for school ratings and visit county school websites for information.
  2. Crime rates: Sites such as CrimeRates and NeighborhoodScout offer crime info for neighborhoods. In addition, Homefacts is a comprehensive site with information about crime rates, schools, demographics, environmental hazards and more.
  3. Walkability: While you can visit a community in person to see what’s around, Walkscore.com provides a numerical rating from 1 to 100 based on the ability to walk to run errands and do daily activities such as grocery shopping or visiting a library. The site includes maps to show what’s around a particular address.
  4. Public transit options: WMATA provides a “service nearby” feature to help you find bus stops and Metro stations. You can also go to county websites for local bus services and commuter information. Capital Bikeshare’s site provides maps and info about its bike rental service.
  5. Future development plans: Development plans can have a major impact on your home value, lifestyle and traffic conditions. You can also check on county websites for plans and zoning information.
  6. Access to parks, recreation and health care: Your real estate agent can help you find nearby amenities and often sellers will include that information with their listing. You can also check out Google Maps and try the AroundMe app to search for parks, banks, hospitals and more.

In addition to checking on these features that could impact your future home value, it’s always wise to test out your commute. Bright MLS just launched a new “drive time search” feature. Tell a real estate agent where you work and how long you are willing to commute and the feature, which uses traffic data from Waze.com, generates a map that shows where you could be looking.

Jon Coile, chairman of Rockville-based multiple-listing service Bright MLS (formerly MRIS) and president of Champion Realty in Annapolis, Md., writes occasional commentary on the Washington area housing market.

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