With their second daughter packing off for college this fall, a couple in their early 50s hankered for a whole new lifestyle. Rather than downsize, they recently bought a 3,000-square-foot wood-and-brick house in a newly developing urban community that adjoins downtown Spokane, Washington.
What most motivated the couple to move from the traditional suburb where they'd lived for a couple of decades wasn't the glitzy features of their new house. Rather, it was all the amenities available in the new neighborhood.
"They wanted a whole new lifestyle. That meant a very walkable setting with hiker-biker trails, locally owned restaurants, coffee shops, a golf course and even a winery," explains Michael Crowley, who's affiliated with the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).
Of course, what constitutes an appealing neighborhood varies widely among buyers. Besides top-rated schools, young families might wish for easy access to a neighborhood day care center. Foodies might want a gourmet grocery store or a farmer's market. Bibliophiles might want a nearby public library. And pet lovers might wish for a dog park.
"Nowadays, the common denominator for nearly all buyers is walkability. People don't want to be stuck in their cars all the time like they were in the old suburbs," Crowley says.
In an acknowledgment of the importance of neighborhood choice to buyers, Trulia (trulia.com), which tracks real estate markets all over the U.S., each year makes what it calls its "Neighborly Awards" to communities it rates as "the friendliest, most spirited and most dog- and kid-friendly."
"People take great pride in where they live. In fact, many buyers and renters say the neighborhood mattered just as much as the house when they were searching for a home," says Tim Correia, Trulia's senior vice president and general manager.
Here are a few pointers for buyers in search of an ideal neighborhood:
-- Screen for shopping convenience, among other factors.
An annual study published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics called the American Time Use Survey finds that adults are spending an increasing amount of time inside rather than outside their homes. One reason could be more home-based work schedules that allow telecommuting. But as the survey also shows, most families still purchase their groceries at stores rather than having them delivered.
"Obviously, food shopping remains a key activity for most people. Because of that, it's wonderful to have a supermarket in your immediate neighborhood," Crowley says.
Although buyers appreciate having a grocery store within walking distance, most continue to drive there anyway, given that groceries are heavy to carry. Yet proximity to a grocery store is still considered a key factor.
-- Search for a neighborhood with plenty of greenery.
Timothy Saeland, an Oregon-based real estate broker, says about a third of his home-buying clients are "outdoorsy people who want that country feeling in their surroundings." For them, trees and green space are more important than a lavish kitchen or opulent bathrooms.
If you relish outdoor activities -- or, at least, the tranquility of gazing out your window at a pristine landscape -- you'll want firm assurances that the green areas around the home you buy will stay that way.
Saeland recommends that buyers stop by the local Chamber of Commerce office to learn more about long-term plans for open areas near any residence they may purchase. "Obviously, you'd rather know before you buy a house that the rural land across the street will be packed with new houses in the not-too-distant future," he says.
-- Don't ignore statistics on crime in the area.
It's increasingly common for prospective buyers to contact local police before deciding whether to settle in to a particular neighborhood.
Saeland says police in smaller communities are especially helpful in pulling out maps to show the areas with the most reported crime. Moreover, police can tell you what types of crime are most common in a neighborhood -- data that many buyers find more clarifying than straight statistics taken off the internet without any context.
-- Keep in mind your personal interests, needs and aversions.
For most buyers, high-quality schools and a short commuting time to work top the list of community attributes that are particularly critical.
But beyond these positives, purchasers vary widely in the importance they attach to neighborhood features.
"With a tremendous number of two-income families now in the home-buying population, having a nearby elementary school with a high-quality after-school program is extremely important to the lifestyle of both working moms and dads," Saeland says.
Retirees often wish to position themselves close to a hospital or doctors' offices. And those with severe health issues may want special assurances that emergency medical services could reach them quickly.
Buyers also vary in terms of their displeasure with certain neighborhood attributes. For instance, some find it objectionable to live close to a church that draws many cars on Sunday mornings. Yet that doesn't bother others.
Purchasers differ in their tolerance for traffic. Though many would reject a home located on a main roadway, others are adamant that they must live on a dead-end street or on a cul-de-sac with scarcely any traffic at all.
"Remember that neighborhood factors that might drive some buyers wild with displeasure could make other people very, very happy," Crowley says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)