It’s inevitable. At some point in all of our adult lives, we have to choose a place to live. I hate, despise and loathe moving but I love the possibilities of settling into a new place. If a move is in your near future, here are five golden rules for choosing the right fit for you and your family.
1. Identify your priorities.
For us, we had four major priorities: 1) good schools, 2) diversity, 3) safety and 4) proximity to work. When we purchased our first home in 2011, neither of our children were school age. However, public education was something that was important to us. We didn’t want to have to send our children to private schools so we could save money for their college education. My husband and I both graduated with student loan debt and didn’t want the same burden for our kids. We also wanted to raise our boys in a diverse area. We didn’t want to be the only family of color. I grew up in Queens, New York which is the most ethnically diverse area in the world (actual fact, y’all). My friends were from everywhere and I think that prepared me to move in this world as a much more well rounded human. I wanted the same for my children. Safety was also a major priority for us. I wanted to live in a community with a low crime rate so I felt free to take long walks and bike rides with my children without worrying. Lastly, proximity to work was important to me. As a New York City native, I knew what it was to spend hours in gridlock on a freeway or moving between buses and trains. It was important to me that my husband and I both made it home in time for dinner and if we had to get to our children in a hurry, we wouldn’t have to worry about a long commute. Ideally, I wanted to be able to get to work in under a half an hour.
Your priorities may be different but it is important you identify them before you begin your search. That will help you narrow your search range and also identify reasonable expectations in terms of size and price. Identifying good school districts often has a big impact on price and taxes. Ultimately, we had to downgrade our expectations in terms of house size in favor of an excellent and diverse school district.
2. Research. Research. Research.
Identifying your priorities should provide you with a search range. If not, try to come up with a list of desirable counties within your state or even better, towns or cities. Google was my best friend when researching. You can find everything from the history of an area, to recent news, to community boards. Specifically, however, it is important to look into crime reports (including the sex offender registry), school score cards and demographics. The county police department is a good place to start for crime reports. Our local police department’s website provides statistics and a daily bulletin documenting police reports and crimes. It doesn’t take long to identify areas of high crime activity. If your unable to find this information online, give them a call. There are also great sites for school data. I begin with the actual school district website and then I move to sites like greatschools.org which provides a comprehensive score card including demographic information. There you can find a percentage of each ethnicity in a school district which will help you weed out school districts that lack diversity (if that is important to you). Markers like students participating in the free or reduced lunch program also provide a snapshot in the economic diversity of a community. I dig a little deeper into demographics by visiting sites like city-data.com which provides information such as religions, income, weather and how educated a particular community is. The site also provides forums to ask questions about specific areas that may be more difficult to research (i.e, areas with good Ethiopian food).
Lastly, take advantage of the plethora of real estate websites and apps. I adore realtor.com. Even now, when we are planning on staying in our house for at least the next five years, I have the realtor.com app on my smartphone and anytime we are in a new community I run a local search of home prices. Realtor.com allows you to search by school district and provides a snapshot of past property assessments which gives you a great idea of how a community is doing in terms of home value. It is so important to look into how the home prices have been doing. While most communities experienced some depreciation following the 2006-07 housing bubble, a good area should have a steady increase in home appreciation. You want a house that builds equity. Steady declines or tons of foreclosures and short sales could be a big red flag.
3. Spend time in the community.
Once you’ve narrowed your search, plan a visit. For us, we rented in our community for two years before buying so we had plenty of time to identify areas that seemed like the right fit. Whether renting is your end objective or you are going straight to buying, make sure you take time to visit and get a good feel for the communities you are interested in. A realtor once recommended I visit the area in the morning, afternoon and evening. This gives you an idea of what a community looks like at all times of day not just during the quiet of the afternoon when everyone is at school and work. When we were apartment hunting, my husband and I fell in love with this cozy apartment seemingly tucked away in a beautiful wooded area. We visited in the morning and were ready to sign the lease but decided to grab lunch and talk it over before committing. When we came back that afternoon to met with the leasing consultant, we were surprised to find the leasing office locked and the leasing consultant sitting behind his desk looking visibly uncomfortable. There were more people around the once quiet community that didn’t crack a smile at us as we approached. It didn’t take long to realize that the leasing consultant didn’t feel safe in the community and neither did we. We immediately crossed that apartment complex off the list.
While your visiting, also be sure to visit local establishments. Markers of a good community include commerce. If you are unable to identify a local grocery store or small business within 10-15 minutes of your home that should raise a red flag about the money people are putting into the community. Visiting local establishments also gives you an idea of the attitudes of the people in the community. When we were house hunting, we visited a neighboring county with much lower home prices but really great school districts. The only problem is the community lacked the diversity we were hoping for. Considering the sacrifice, we spent the day with our realtor looking at some great homes that came in under budget. When we were done for the day, we went out for pizza at a local spot that had good reviews. When we walked in, you could hear a pin drop. To put it plainly, we were the only brown faces and it was clear everyone noticed. While everyone was decent enough, they were curious where we were from and how long we were staying. Answer: not here, not long. Spending time in a community can be one of the fastest ways to identify small minds.
4. Get advice.
Talk to people! As a non-native of my current neighborhood, I didn’t know all the ins and outs of the areas I was researching as I would have in my hometown. I remember seeing a beautiful area off the interstate and questioning a friend and she said simply you don’t want to live there. When I pressed her, she told me it was an area of high KKK activity. She admitted even as a white person she would never go there. After I google verified, I nearly kissed her. Sometimes you need a person to tell you what research will not. Like, the deserted areas where the street lights never work, the roads that people speed down, the local grocery store that always sells spoiled food, or the areas where small minds outnumber progressive ones. I asked co-workers, friends and even questioned strangers when visiting the areas on my list.
Also, if within your budget, consult a realtor. A good realtor can be a life saver but be mindful, not every one is a good fit. When we first started our home search, we hired a realtor that insisted on directing us to areas we weren’t interested in. After months of back and forth, I started visiting homes on my own and in the process met an amazing realtor who listened. He knew our priorities and was patient with our search. I was actually happy to fork him over a check at closing.
5. Don’t settle.
Whether searching for a home or an apartment, the process can be exhausting. From securing financing, to saving, to visiting places, it’s tempting to just pull an “eeny, meeny, miney, moo” and call it a day. However, whether its a lease or a mortgage, you don’t want to be stuck in a place that makes you miserable for any amount of time. Take your time and don’t settle. Even if that means putting your search aside or making temporary accommodations like a short term lease while you decide. You want to have peace of mind where you rest your head each night so choose wisely!
About The Author
Faye McCray is an attorney by day and writer all the time. Her work has been featured on My Brown Baby, AfroPunk, AfroNews, For Harriet, Madame Noire, Black Girl Nerds, Black and Married with Kids, and other popular publications. Faye also has a number of short stories and a full length novel available for purchase on Amazon. Most importantly, Faye is a proud wife and mother to three beautiful and talented young boys who she is fiercely passionate about raising. You can find Faye on Twitter @fayewrites and on the web at fayemccray.com.