If you’re like a lot of people, the pandemic probably has you wondering whether it’s time to move. But looking to buy or rent a new house in the COVID-19 epidemic presents some unique challenges: How do you check out a home from home? How do you find a great neighborhood when you’re sheltering in place?
“We’re living in a time when not only do we have access to a ton of information on the web but we’re also home more than ever because of the coronavirus,” says Owen Berkowitz, a co-principal of the Berkowitz Marrone Team with Douglas Elliman in Scarsdale, New York. As a result, “Buyers have become more aware and adept at using online tools to study neighborhoods.”
But scoping out a new area online is about more than just punching a few keywords into Google. Here are eight strategic ways to research a neighborhood online, including sites the pros recommend.
'WALK AROUND' VIRTUALLY
If you can’t physically pound the pavement, Berkowitz recommends using Google Street View to tour the streets virtually. The Google Earth tool can even give you a bird’s eye view of the community and enable you to assess the landscape, much like if you were using a drone.
STUDY UP ON THE SCHOOL DISTRICT
According to a recent Realtor.com survey, nine in 10 buyers with children said that school boundaries were "important" or "very important" during their home search. But if good schools are one of your priorities, you’ll need to rely on your own research, because real estate agents are prohibited from commenting on school quality under the Fair Housing Act, says Melodye Colucci, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Stamford, Connecticut.
Consequently, Colucci points buyers toward GreatSchools.org, a nonprofit that provides school ratings based on test scores, diversity and college readiness data, such as SAT participation and high school graduation rates.
READ LOCAL PUBLICATIONS
Regional magazines and newspapers are excellent — yet frequently untapped — sources of information about neighborhoods, Colucci says. A case in point: Washingtonian magazine’s D.C. Neighborhood Guide provides restaurant reviews, real estate listings and school district information for 18 neighborhoods in and around the nation’s capital.
CULL SAFETY DATA
Agents also cannot legally comment on a neighborhood’s safety, but you can quickly find location-based data on crime rates, arrest records and the types of crime that occur in an area by using sites such as NeighborhoodScout, SpotCrime and Family Watchdog.
If you can’t tour the neighborhood yourself, you can still see how it fared on WalkScore.com, which rates walkability based on a town’s proximity to restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, schools and parks. Colucci says walkability ratings are “key for city dwellers moving to the suburbs who don't own a car or simply prefer to get exercise by walking versus driving.”
TAP SOCIAL MEDIA
You may not be able to knock door to door to ask residents about their neighborhood, but you can do the online equivalent, Berkowitz says, by using sites like Nextdoor, a social network where neighbors exchange everything from recommendations for babysitters to their favorite bars and restaurants. “Sites like Nextdoor have essentially become the town square of neighborhoods,” Berkowitz says.
In addition, consider following a town’s Chamber of Commerce, tourism department and community center on social media to find out timely neighborhood news.
LOOK FOR STRONG HOME PRICE GROWTH
You certainly want your home to turn out to be a good investment when you sell it down the road. So what’s the best way to see if home prices are rising in a zip code? Consult a local real estate agent. “There are a number of property-listing websites that offer home price statistics, but an agent can provide you with expert advice to help you contextualize the data,” Berkowitz says.
TAP CENSUS DATA
The Census Bureau is a treasure trove of information. You can find statistics on a zip code’s diversity, commute times, median home values, employment and other valuable data by searching the site’s QuickFacts database.