Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

SURROUNDINGS MATTER, WHEN BUYING A HOME

A discount store manager and his wife, a post office clerk, had long searched for an affordable house for their retirement years. So they were thrilled when they found a property that seemed perfect: a small, well-priced, one-level ranch-style house on a manageable lot.

But in their excitement, the couple failed to take note of the home's setting. Living just a quarter-mile from an airport, the surrounding neighborhood suffered the near-constant drone of planes flying overhead.

"Happily, these folks realized the racket would be a terrible problem and backed away from buying the house before it was too late," says Leo Berard, the long-time real estate broker who represented the buyers.

Berard says that it's not unusual for some homebuyers to fall in love with a house located in the wrong setting.

"Homebuyers should never ignore the overall neighborhood, or the quality of their lives could be at stake," says Berard, charter president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org).

Fortunately, the couple in this true story passed up the house near the airport and continued their search until they found another ranch house in a peaceful community without a noise problem. Although that property cost 5 percent more, they were pleased with their choice.

A recent U.S. Department of Labor study shows that Americans now spend a substantial amount of their free time indoors. But that doesn't mean they should be oblivious to what's happening outside their front door, says Ronald Phipps, a real estate broker and the immediate past president of the National Association of Realtors (www.realtor.org).

Here are a few pointers for homebuyers who want to ensure they choose a home in the right setting:

-- Factor shopping into your neighborhood choice.

Despite the rise of Internet shopping in recent years, most homebuyers still do their grocery shopping in person. And Berard says the typical buyer wants to be within a 10- to 12-minute drive of a full-service supermarket.

"It's not just the time but also the route to the grocery store. People shouldn't have to battle traffic on an interstate highway to get to a supermarket," he says.

The proximity of other commercial enterprises, such as hardware stores, dry cleaners and gas stations, are also important to purchasers, as well as quality restaurants.

Still, as Berard notes, few homebuyers are willing to live extremely close to these amenities, fearing that traffic and noise could be a problem. This could be especially vexing if they find themselves within earshot of a store, a restaurant or still worse, a bar.

-- Seek a leafy neighborhood if greenery is important to you.

Timothy Saeland, a real estate broker affiliated with the Real Estate Buyer's Agent Council (www. rebac.net), says an increasing number of his home-buying clients are "outdoorsy people" who insist that the home they buy is set in an area with ample open space and greenery, particularly if they own pets.

Are trees and green space more important to you than lavish kitchen or bathroom fixtures? If so, Saeland says you should seek firm assurances that the green areas around the home you buy will stay that way. He recommends that homebuyers stop by the local government's planning and zoning office to learn more about long-term plans for open areas near any residence they may purchase.

He believes residents in neighborhoods with dedicated parkland and hiking-biking trails are often more sociable than those where houses are cheek-to-cheek.

"People who live in green neighborhoods generally walk more and are more likely to talk to neighbors," he says.

-- Don't forget to factor crime statistics into your consideration.

Saeland recommends that prospective homebuyers contact local police before confirming plans to settle into a neighborhood that seems appealing.

"People look at crime statistics on the Internet. But fewer than one in 100 take my advice and stop by to talk to people at a local police station to learn more about the nature of crime in their area. Doing so is well worth your time," he says.

Besides giving you statistics on local crime, the police can tell you what types of incidents are most common in a neighborhood -- helping you assess its overall level of security.

-- Realize that location is ultimately a very personal choice.

For most homebuyers who are employed, a reasonable commute to work tops their search list when choosing a neighborhood. But beyond these positives, Berard says purchasers vary widely in the importance they attach to neighborhood features.

"Some buyers with very young kids insist on finding a home in a community with its own day-care center so they can drop off a child conveniently on their way to work. This is especially vital for dual-income families," Berard says.

Retirees often wish to position themselves within a short drive of a hospital or doctors' offices. And those with severe health issues may want special assurances that emergency medical services could reach them quickly.

Often, personal interests are critically important to the selection of the best possible neighborhood. For instance, Berard tells how one pair of clients -- married rabbis -- stressed their need to find a house within walking distance of a neighborhood synagogue.

Homebuyers also vary in terms of their resistance to certain neighborhood features. 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.

"At the end of the day, your choice of a community is a highly individual matter. But it's also extremely important to your happiness," Berard says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)