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Home Buying - Research the NeighborhoodIs this the year you want to buy a home in Silicon Valley? There’s more to think about than what you can afford and how much home you can get for your budget. It is imperative that you research the neighborhood before taking the plunge. More times than I can count, I’ve heard home owners tell me that they walked into an open house, fell in love with the property, and bought it as soon as they could.  That is really not ideal, but we know that home buyers sometimes make decisions emotionally, and then rationalize the purchase.

In addition to studying the disclosure packet – including the HOA docs, if there are any – it’s also important to research the neighborhood, since that is the one thing you cannot change after you have completed the purchase.

The disclosure package will include (99% of the time) seller’s  completed disclosure forms, generic state and county advisories and disclosures, a natural hazard report, an environmental hazard report, buyer and seller “agent visual inspection disclosure” forms (AVIDs), real estate brokerage advisories and disclosures, a preliminary title report (often with CCRs – covenants, codes, and restrictions). Even without HOA documents, the stack can be several hundred pages long. What else could you possibly need to know?

The onus is on the home buyer to research the property and anything else impacting value or desirability – objectively, or to that buyer particularly.  That should include, as a top priority, the neighborhood. You might include these items in your study of the area:

  1. Local crime. It may be true that this or that zip code has a safe reputation, but what about your home’s corner of it? Go to a site such as CrimeReports.com and tweak the time frames to cover as many months as possible to get a feeling for the safety issues. Ask friends who live in that area what they see on Nextdoor (they are not allowed to copy and paste out of that site, but may have input). There are no crime-free zones in Silicon Valley, but some areas are worse than others.
  2. Local schools. You may not have kids, but the schools are often a leading driver of home values, so be sure to research the neighborhood schools. If the market turns south, having something with enduring value such as good public schools will help to bolster values. There are a variety of websites that cover test scores,  parent and student feedback, college readiness at the high school level, and other indicators. I like the SchoolAndHousing.com website, but would not limit my recon to that alone. You can also ask to meet with school officials or perhaps get a tour to make sure any questions are answered.
  3. Traffic and commute.  It seems like the farther out you go, the more home you get for the money. But how brutal will your commute be? My suggestion is to try the commute before you buy. Don’t do it on “Friday light”, but give it a go mid-week, and aim to do it at your normal driving hour.  Google maps has a tool that allows you to plug in your starting and stopping points, and when you want to be there, but I’ve found it’s a little optimistic. It’s just not the same as doing it. I would advise trying it twice. (You may end up preferring a smaller home with a better commute.)
  4. Natural Hazards. The report is dozens of pages long, but do take the time to get past page 1, which only reveals the state mapped zones. A little deeper into the document, you’ll find additional data on the county mapped zones, such as earthquake faults, that you do want to know about. The county mapped faults supposedly have not moved in 11,000 years, but it does not make it impossible for them do act up should a large quake drop on the San Andreas or Hayward fault. Not sure what to make of the zones? One of the geological companies which provides the NHD reports has a series of videos on what the major state mapped zones means. I highly recommend viewing them.
  5. Neighbors. Are the neighbors neighborly, or are the difficult people in close proximity? Recently I showed a home in which the next door neighbor broke through the fence and installed a new fence across part of the seller’s yard – hoping to claim it as his own. It was a strange legal situation as that part of the yard used to be an alley, so there was some legal limbo involved.  There can be unkempt homes, too many cars on the street (suggests crowding), yards that need some TLC, tagging, litter…. I have sometimes had buyers knock on the doors of immediate and nearby neighbors to say hello and ask about the area. That’s gone well and it might be something for home buyers to consider doing.
  6. Web searches. You may want to go to the Megan’s Law website, or google the street address, or do any number of other searches online to make sure you understand the area which interests you.
  7. Topography. Hills are beautiful but living on or near them sometimes means dealing with water related issues. Is the crawl space damp in the middle of summer? Learn about drainage and foundation work – right away.

Got more ideas for neighborhood research that I’ve missed? I’ve had to turn off comments due to overwhelming spam (1,000 spam to 1 real comment), but shoot me an email and I’ll update this piece if I agree that it’s a good tip.