06/12/2013Many homebuyers think that the more affluent the neighborhood, the more welcoming it is to newcomers who move there. But the opposite is often true.
"In expensive neighborhoods, everybody is busy. People in professional jobs work extra hours and their kids are programmed in a zillion activities. Nobody has time to get together," says Laureen Kennedy, a real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (www.crs.com).
Although there are no guarantees in any neighborhood, Kennedy says homebuyers looking for a cohesive community stand a better chance of finding it in a middle-income area than a high-end one.
Kennedy points to several factors that tend to reduce the friendliness quotient in high-end neighborhoods. For one thing, people in such areas are more likely to hire landscaping firms, meaning they're less likely to mingle over lawn care chores. Also, more well-to-do parents send their children to private (rather than public) schools, making it less likely their kids will know each other and pal around.
Still another reason is that -- with some exceptions -- many upscale houses are surrounded by spacious grounds, which discourages casual interaction, says Peter Lovenheim, author of "In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time."
Lovenheim used the unusual tactic of arranging sleepovers for himself at neighbors' homes, to become better acquainted with them. He says many people are eager to live in close-knit communities but are uncertain how to bond and keep up ties.
Are you moving to a new area and want a friendly community? If so, Lovenheim offers a few clues that could help in your search. Look for a neighborhood that sponsors group events -- like picnics, porch parties and a Fourth of July celebration. Also, ask if the community publishes a residents' directory or uses an online forum for residents to stay in touch.
Here are a few additional pointers:
-- Seek out an area with strong parental involvement in the schools.
People who place a premium on neighborhood closeness do well to focus on school quality. That's because strong schools draw people together -- tightening ties for residents of all ages, says William Bainbridge, president of the SchoolMatch Institute, (www.schoolmatch.com), which provides consumers with comparative information on school quality.
Is it necessary to move to an affluent area to find an exceptional school? Not necessarily, says Bainbridge, who contends that parental involvement is a primary factor in school quality, and that can be found anywhere.
Strong neighborhood schools help promote solidarity, says Mark Nash, a veteran real estate broker and author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home."
"Kids are the glue that holds everybody together," he says.
-- Drive through a neighborhood at multiple times of the day.
Once you've narrowed your search to a particular community, Nash suggests you visit at different times of the day and, ideally, on a weekday as well as a weekend.
"To get a full picture, I tell clients to drive or walk through the area at least four times different times: during the morning, mid-afternoon, at dinnertime and again at 11 p.m.," Nash says.
He says visiting in the evening is especially important. The idea is to observe whether most residents spend non-work hours holed up in their homes or are outside exercising, walking their dogs and relating in a friendly manner.
-- Ask about the social dynamics of the neighborhood.
Buyers intent on finding a friendly community are well advised to spend some time asking how people relate to each other.
"Besides just driving through, you can learn a lot about people's attitudes and behavior by going door-to-door on a Saturday and striking up informal conversations," Nash says.
During these conversations, ask residents about the pros and cons of living in the area. If anyone resists opening up, just move on to the next house.
"Explain that you're interested in living in their area and want to know more about it. If you're relaxed and friendly, most people will respond candidly," Nash says.
-- Don't assume that a newly built neighborhood will be unfriendly.
Are you interested in a subdivision that's still under development but fear it could be a cold, aloof area in which to raise a family? If so, Kennedy suggests you learn more about the community before automatically rejecting it.
The residents of newly constructed neighborhoods are typically two-income families with parents in their 20s to 40s who have demanding daily schedules. Even so, many who move to these new areas seek lasting friendships with neighbors.
"Everyone is new at the same time -- making it more likely they'll be open to new friendships. Also, because their landscaping is unfinished, people are outside a lot, making it easier to connect. Then, too, there's a shared pride of homeownership in the new place," Kennedy says.
-- Don't forget that friendship is a reciprocal activity.
There are many advantages to having a support structure in the community where you live. Not only can you borrow enough gas to finish mowing your lawn should the need arise, but you can count on neighbors to look after your property when you're away on vacation or -- most importantly -- when you face an emergency.
"Maybe you're at work when your teenage son takes a nasty skateboard spill. If so, a neighbor with whom you're close could fill in at the hospital until you can make it there," Nash says.
But as he notes, moving to a friendly area won't guarantee you a strong support structure unless you invest the time necessary to get to know your neighbors and socialize on a day-to-day basis as well as at times of celebration.
"In reality, all solid relationships are mutual. That means you have to build friendships with your neighbors or you can't expect them to help you out much when you're in a bind," he says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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