Among the most common questions home buyers ask their real estate agents are: “Is this a good neighborhood?” “Is that a good school?” and “Is this a safe place to live?” While agents are meant to be fountains of local knowledge, they’re legally not allowed to answer those queries. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination, bars them from sharing opinions that could be biased.
“The simplest explanation is that we can talk about property, not people,” says Ben Stern, vice president and managing broker for Buyer’s Edge in Washington, D.C. “It’s not providing your client the best service to project preconceived notions about a place.”
Plus, the answers to those questions are so subjective, says Dana Bull, an agent with Compass in Boston. “If someone asks me if a neighborhood is ‘family friendly’ or ‘safe’, I don't know what that means to them,” she says. “Some clients feel safe in places that others wouldn’t.”
Other topics — such as an area’s environmental risks or future development — are okay for agents to talk about, but might require extra digging to get the most complete information. The upshot? Whether you’re contemplating a move or just curious about your current neighborhood, you’ll likely want to do your own homework. Here are some ways to get started.
1. Researching schools
School websites typically offer abundant information about programs and demographic details such as the number of students, graduation rates and the diversity of the student body. Beyond that, you can make your online sleuthing more productive by honing in on the specific qualities you want in a school, then searching for those. For example, “best high schools for performing arts” or “elementary schools with language immersion programs.”
Tim Ossmo, CEO of real-estate consulting service Suburban Jungle, frequently digs into school information for clients (his company operates in 15 housing markets). He suggests researching local newspapers and magazines for “best schools” and then reviewing information about individual schools according to your priorities.
In addition, sites such as GreatSchools.org and PrivateSchoolReview.com offer reviews and data on individual schools. GreatSchools analyzes data from state and federal departments of education including test scores, student progress and college readiness. PrivateSchoolReview doesn’t provide rankings, just information such as demographics, classroom size and extracurricular activities.
2. Researching local crime
Probably the best way to know whether you’ll feel safe in a particular neighborhood is simply to spend time there. Walk and drive around, and talk to the people who live there, says Bull. Advises Ossmo, “Go on different days of the week, at different times of day to picture yourself there.”
If you’re interested in a particular house, Bull also recommends Googling the address to see if any concerning information comes up. It may be worth joining neighborhood Facebook groups and listservs internet mailing lists, where neighbors swap information, especially if you think you’ll stay in a community for the long term.
For hard numbers about crime rates, “it’s best to go directly to the local police department site or other crime sites that aggregate data based on government statistics,” says Stern. One such site is CityProtect.com, which pulls information from local police departments.
3. Researching climate risks
The specific consequences of climate change for a given area — and the speed with which they will arrive — are difficult to predict. But two free online resources that many real estate experts recommend for researching climate and environmental risks are Climate Check and First Street Foundation. Both sites assess flood, extreme heat and wildfire risks, based on decades of historical data and scientific models of future climate patterns. You can use them by entering an address to receive a report.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also includes flood-risk maps on its website, which you can search by address, place name or latitude and longitude coordinates. However, The Washington Post found in a recent investigation that those maps have failed to keep up with increasing flood risks in many communities.
4. Researching taxes
Listings of homes for sale usually include estimated property taxes, but if you’re not sure where exactly you want to live, you can find local property tax rates on county or municipality websites. The SmartAsset Property Tax Calculator is another handy tool; it allows you to plug in a location and home value (or estimated home value) to arrive at an annual property tax amount.
If you have an agent or mortgage lender, you can also ask them to check on taxes for a home in your price range in the neighborhoods you’re considering. (Once you find a place, your lender will need to estimate taxes as part of your loan qualification anyway.)
5. Researching walkability, noise and other factors
In addition to visiting a neighborhood at different times and on various days, you can get data about what it’s like to live there from companies such as Local Logic, Kukun and Attom Data Solutions, sometimes for a fee. These resources can be particularly handy if you’re trying to evaluate neighborhoods from out of state.
“We provide an address-by-address scoring system so consumers can compare whether a house is on a noisy street, for example,” says Vincent-Charles Hodder, Montreal-based CEO of Local Logic. The company’s scoring system can give people a sense of how many stores or restaurants are in a neighborhood, how green a community is based on the size of its parks, and even whether the streets have tree canopies, he says.
Attom Data Solutions’ home disclosure reports and Kukun’s property reports also provide detailed information about a house and neighborhood if you have a specific address to check. Both companies have access to proprietary data that they study to provide both historical information and predictive analytics.
6. Researching a neighborhood’s future
While you’ll likely be able to find information about major transit projects and development plans in the local media, there may be other, under-the-radar changes (or potential changes) that require extra digging to uncover.
“If you’re looking at a neighborhood with empty land nearby, you definitely want to ask about who owns it and whether it is set aside as conservation land or can be built on,” says Bull.
Building permits are generally public information; it’s just a matter of figuring out which local agency houses them. They are often searchable by address on the websites of city or county planning and zoning agencies, and will tell you what type of work is planned for a particular lot. You can also pull property records, typically through those same types of agencies, to determine who owns a given parcel (though sometimes, an owner’s identity is concealed behind a trust or LLC).