Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Find a Strong Community

Some of the happiest of childhood memories can be linked to growing up in a community with friendly people. But sometimes those seeking to find a home in a family-friendly place are disappointed, says Diana Leafe Christian, the author of "Finding Community."

"Community-seekers need to know how to avoid the common blunders that well-meaning but inexperienced people can make when first visiting and joining communities," says Christian, an advocate for intentional communities, which are organized from the outset to give residents a high level of social interaction and mutual support.

Mark Nash, a long-time real estate broker and author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home," says many buyers mistakenly believe a suburban community with high-end houses will necessarily give them a warm, welcoming place to live.

"You could locate your family in a so-called 'nice neighborhood' only to discover that people there have no time to talk because they travel a lot, have high-powered jobs and put their kids in private schools rather than neighborhood schools," Nash says.

There's no simple formula for finding a family-friendly neighborhood. But Nash urges homebuyers to investigate thoroughly before making a purchase. Here are a few pointers:

-- Consider buying in a brand-new subdivision.

Would you like to live in a development of freshly built new homes yet fear it would be an unfriendly place to raise your family? If so, Nash suggests you learn more about the development before automatically rejecting it based on what could be an unfounded belief.

Granted, brand-new communities with moderately priced homes are often populated by many two-income families with parents who have demanding daily schedules. Still, many who move to these new areas are highly motivated to build lasting friendships with neighbors who also have kids and would like to share childcare responsibilities.

"One huge plus for a brand-new neighborhood is that everyone comes in from the same starting point. There's no established social hierarchy for a newcomer to break into," Nash says.

-- Recognize the benefits of an established community with a mix of ages.

Although a neighborhood populated with many young children offers obvious advantages for families with small kids, there are also positives for one with mixed-age households.

"Try finding a babysitter in an area where nearly all the residents have kids under 10. You need a place with teenagers or college students home on breaks to find babysitters," he says.

And what about families moving to an area where some friendly empty-nesters already reside?

"It's psychologically healthy for kids to see active seniors out ... enjoying life, especially if the older people interact with the children in a positive way," Nash says.

-- Investigate the social dynamics of any neighborhood you're considering.

Buyers who want a friendly, interactive community are well advised to spend some time there looking for less-than-obvious clues about how people relate.

To learn more about the underlying social dynamics of a community, don't hesitate to go door-to-door and strike up conversations with residents or talk to local shopkeepers. Ask them about the pros and cons of living in the area. The odds are they will respond candidly.

-- Don't limit yourself to just one visit to the neighborhood.

Nash suggests that those with a strong interest in a community visit the area at varied hours to look for patterns of human behavior. Also consider visiting on a weekday as well as the weekend.

"Walk or drive through the neighborhood four times in a day, during the morning, at mid-afternoon, at dinnertime and at 11 p.m. Notice whether people are relating to each other or staying holed up in their homes nearly all the time," he says.

-- Always factor in the advantages of solid neighborhood schools.

A school is important for more than the educational opportunities it gives students. A strong school can help draw people together, tightening the bonds among residents of all ages, says William Bainbridge, president of the SchoolMatch Institute, (schoolmatch.com), which provides comparative information on school quality.

Must you move to an affluent area to find a school with both high-quality facilities and a dedicated teaching force? Not necessarily, according to Bainbridge, who says parental involvement is a key factor in school quality and one that can be present in any type of community.

-- Remember that friendship is always a reciprocal activity.

Those who live in a supportive community have many advantages. For one thing, they can count on neighbors in a pinch -- to borrow a couple of eggs, for example. For another, their neighbors can help ensure the security of their home while they're away. Most importantly, they can count on help in an emergency situation.

But as Nash stresses, moving to a friendly neighborhood won't guarantee that you develop a strong support structure, unless you invest time and energy in creating positive relationships that are genuinely give-and-take. You need to socialize during times of celebration as well as need.

"There's no way to shortcut the process of building relationships. If you want your neighbors to be there in your time of need, you'd better build a good relationship with them and make sure you're also there when they need you," he says.

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