How to Research an Area Before Moving

How to Research an Area Before Moving

Moving to a new area can be daunting, particularly if you have no opportunity to check out the physical location before packing your bags. With the Internet at your disposal, you can alleviate some of your worries by researching the area and specific neighborhoods before deciding where to begin looking for your new home. Statistics, demographics and lifestyle information can tell you a lot about an area and give you a general picture of your new prospective home.

Determine Housing Prices

You'll want to know if you can afford to live in a specific area – whether you can afford average living costs and just how much house you can comfortably fit into your budget. Sites like Zillow.com offer a broad picture, but they don't always report all the data you may need to make an informed decision. The best way to figure out housing prices in an area is to contact a real estate agent local to the area that interests you.

Browsing the “homes for sale” ads on the area’s local newspaper or on independent real estate websites (even Craigslist.com) can also give you a general idea of home prices in the area, but again, these are not definitive and will only give you general data on what a home costs in the area.

Determine The Cost of Living

The cost of living naturally changes from region to region – commodities like food, energy and health care can jump or decrease in price. If you're faced with an unexpected increase in your cost of living, you might not make it in your new home, so this is an important consideration.

A cost of living calculator like that provided by CNN, which pulls data from the Cost of Living Index (COLI) compiled by the Council for Community and Economic Research, can help you figure out how the value of a dollar will change, based on location. So, for example, a person moving from Washington, DC, to Wilmington, North Carolina, would see an average of a 7 percent decrease in grocery costs and a 16 percent increase in health care costs.

The index doesn't account for all variables and lifestyles, so you still may find certain changes you didn't expect – but for a general idea, the calculators can help you prepare for lifestyle changes you might not otherwise have expected.

Research Crime Rates and Data

It's only natural to want to know whether you’ll be safe in your new home. Researching crime rates and statistics are one way to get a picture of the general safety of your new city. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offers four annual publications, available online and off, that can give you some idea of what you'll be dealing with. The National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), the Hate Crimes Statistics report, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) and the Crime in the United States reports all provide broad pictures of crime in an area. These reports are gathered from voluntarily submitted data from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country.

Additionally, you can usually obtain a copy of the area’s crime blotter from a local newspaper. For example, in Wilmington, you can access the Star News website at http://www.starnewsonline.com/section/news05 and track the list of crimes committed recently. Some local law enforcement agencies have also taken to social media to publish daily reports and information about crimes to keep residents safe, so you can also use those accounts to gauge the lay of the land. Wilmington’s police department, for example, maintains both a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

Information that doesn’t make the local paper’s news blotter often shows up on social media feeds, including positive stories about the community that can help you gauge the social atmosphere of the area. If you're not comfortable trusting social media posts, many police departments maintain public information phone numbers you can call to obtain information about crime in the area.

Examine Local School Districts

Even if you don't have a school-aged child, researching an area’s school districts is an excellent way to get a feel for local communities. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) offers multiple publications, reports, data and statistics for all school districts (and taxes) in the United States. Their School District Demographics System (SDDS) offers a broad picture of the makeup of the community at a macro level. Data is pulled from the U.S. Census Bureau to help identify the social, economic and racial demographics of an individual school district, which you can use to get an idea of what your community will be like.

Research the Weather

It may seem trivial to some, but weather matters to others. For example, if you have arthritis or difficulty walking, you probably won't want to live in an area with heavy snowfall and ice. The National Weather Service (NWS) (weather.gov) provides climatological data for all areas of the United States, including average temperatures for each month (both highs and lows) and data on historical and significant weather events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and tropical storms.

Knowing what type of weather an area experiences can also help you figure out what type of insurance you'll need for your home and possessions.

Know Your Transportation Options

Even if you have a car, being aware of alternate transportation options is useful. Applications like MapMyWalk can provide you with data about walking routes in the area, as well as any safety hazards or ongoing construction areas.

Google Maps provides a good street-level view of neighborhoods, homes and the downtown area; it also delivers a starting point to research available public transportation, including buses, trolleys and trains. More comprehensive information about public transportation options, including rates and schedules, can be found by contacting the local transit authority or visiting their website.

Get to Know the Local Culture

Moving to a new area can leave you with culture shock if you aren't prepared. Check out the town’s Chamber of Commerce for a listing of local businesses, events and annual community festivals and celebrations. Wilmington’s Chamber of Commerce provides a monthly calendar of events, as do many other area Chambers.

This is another area where the local newspaper can come in handy. Browse the website or order a print copy for a listing of events in your new community. The newspaper is an excellent source of grassroots information about the music scene, theater and cultural events in the area.

Scope out the Job Market

Job market data can provide you with information beyond just what jobs are available to you and your family – it can give you an idea of how the area is doing economically. Whether you or your spouse are job-seekers, are thinking of rejoining the workforce or are happily retired and have no plans of going back, researching the job market should be an essential part of your research.

Again, this is an area where the local newspaper, classified ad websites and the local Chamber of Commerce will provide you with the best general overview.

Use The Data You Gathered

After you've checked housing prices and the local weather, seen the local sights, researched school district and property taxes, figured out the transportation options and learned crime and job information, it’s time to choose your plan of action. While none of this information is a substitute for personally visiting a location (although working closely with a trusted local real estate agent is a close second), you'll get a good overview of the area. If you can arrange it, take the time to pay a visit to the town that interests you and use the data you gathered to help you make a final decision.

A handy tool you can use for comparing options can be to assign a numerical score, such as on a scale of 1 to 10, to each aspect, representing its impact to you. Then add up the total score for each area you're considering and see how they compare. For instance, in comparing Wilmington, Castle Hayne and Riegelwood as possible new locations, you might assign individual scores like these, with 1 being less important to you and 10 being very important to you:

Wilmington

Castle Hayne

Riegelwood

Housing Cost

7

5

5

Cost of Living

7

4

5

Crime Rate

4

7

5

Schools

5

7

5

Property Taxes

6

4

4

Weather

5

4

6

Transportation

8

4

4

Culture

5

7

5

Jobs

7

4

6

54

46

45

 

While such a chart certainly isn't enough to base such an important decision upon, it can help put things in perspective.

Relocating is an important decision and it deserves careful consideration before taking the plunge. Take the time to learn as much as you can about your potential new home before committing - you'll be glad you did.

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