070515-dec-lif-marni

When you buy a house, you buy a neighborhood. So be sure to meet the neighbors before you sign those loan docs. 

Photo courtesy of dreamstime.com

The dog barks day and night. Hoodlums sell drugs on the corner. The neighbor plays drums and tuba. The garbage dump is just over your back hill. The flight path to the nearby airport barely clears your chimney and the pasty-faced man across the street is a registered sex offender.

If you’d only known.

Hard as it is to find a house you love in your price range, that is not enough. You need to love the neighborhood, too. Because you don’t just buy a house, you buy everything around it.

“The number one reason people move, besides downsizing or upsizing, is because they don’t like their neighbors,” said Rhonda Duffy, a top Atlanta real estate agent, who has sold more than 17,000 homes.

Her advice: Get to know the neighborhood before you sign the mortgage documents. Once your offer’s accepted, and you go from singing the hallelujah chorus while doing the victory dance to a triple-Xanax panic attack, pull yourself together and do a thorough neighborhood background check to find out, literally, what you are getting into.

Otherwise, you can’t know that nudist party animals live next door.

Which is why I am so glad I met Brianna and Bob.

Shortly after DC’s offer to buy the happy yellow Mediterranean house (which I fell into house love with 10 seconds after I walked in, and where we talked about living together eventually) got accepted, I met Brianna.

Brianna lived in the house before she sold it to the current owners a few years ago. I found Brianna through my book club. Anyone in a book club knows their pull, connections and collective wisdom can trump a Harvard alumni. I mentioned the happy yellow house to my club, and one member said, “Hmmm, if it’s the house I’m thinking of, I know the former owner.”

Next day I’m on the phone with Brianna. Lucky for me, details stick to Brianna’s memory like a lint roller, and she keeps notes like a librarian. Within 24 hours she had emailed me all the contractors who had worked on the house, warned me about the one who had made a pass at her, told me the insider dirt (all cleaned up) about the home owners’ association, about leaks and how they were fixed, and gave me the name of the hardwood floor installer. She summed up saying, “It’s by far the best house I have ever lived in.”

Then I met Bob. I was outside waiting to meet a contractor when Bob, wearing a crisp starched shirt and a big smile, came over hand extended. Bob lives across the street with his wife and golden retriever. As we struck up a conversation about the neighborhood, the journalist in me kicked in and I grilled him. He put any remaining concerns to rest.

“The neighbors,” he assured me, “you are going to love them.”

“You have done far more than most buyers,” Duffy said, when I told her about Brianna and Bob.

“If one of my buyers ranks a house seven or higher on a scale of 10, that merits a close look at the neighborhood,” she said. That discovery can make a house that ranks a seven jump to a nine or plummet to a two.

Here are eight questions Duffy says to ask the neighbors long before you pull up with a moving van:

Crime. Ask them about crime in the area. Also look online at police reports, and check websites that list registered sex offenders to see if any live nearby.

Schools. Ask them how many school-age children are in the neighborhood, how the schools are, and where the bus stop is. Go online and look up how the schools rate. Good schools and good neighborhoods go together.

Traffic. Ask whether traffic poses a safety issue. Also inquire about noise from cars, trains or planes. Turn off any masking noise, such as music or a water feature, and listen.

Noise. Ask about any other noisy nuisances like barking dogs or chronic partiers.

Home owners’ association. If an HOA governs the community, ask neighbors about its culture and reputation, and how often it cites residents and for what. Get a copy of the bylaws and read them. Find out what the dues are, and what they cover.

Who’s who. Ask who else lives on the street, professionals, young families, empty nesters, college kids? Most homeowners seek like-minded neighbors.

Transience. Ask how many residents rent. If homes on the street are for sale, ask why the sellers are moving.

Acid test. Finally, ask the neighbors whether they know of any reason you shouldn’t buy the house you are interested in, and, if they had to do it over, whether they would buy the house they are in.

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