Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Find a Friendly Neighborhood

Government leaders and academics all over America are fretting about an emerging social problem: loneliness.

Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote a book about the issue. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, links it to rising medical problems. And Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general, declared it “a public health epidemic.”

Meanwhile, real estate agents report that an increasing number of homebuyers wish to move to an area where neighbors engage with each other in friendly ways. Families with children are especially eager to reside in a community where kids have nearby playmates and families share in neighborhood-wide events.

“For many purchasers, a friendly neighborhood is more important than a house with lots of square footage,” says Tom Early, a veteran real estate broker who specializes in helping buyers.

But he acknowledges it can be tricky to discern whether an area will prove sociable.

“Sometimes, signs of neighborhood friendliness are subtle. Home shoppers have to dig below the surface for clues to sociability, and that means asking lots of questions,” says Early, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (

Here are a few pointers for homebuyers:

-- Search for a community with strong ties to neighborhood schools.

A strong school can help draw people together, tightening bonds among residents of all ages, says William Bainbridge, president of the SchoolMatch Institute, (, which helps clients assess 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.

How does a strong neighborhood school help bind residents together?

“Children are the conduit for lots of connections,” says Mark Nash, the author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.” He encourages prospective residents --including those with no school-age children -- to visit a neighborhood’s schools before deciding to buy a home there.

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

Buyers seeking an interactive community are well advised to spend some time in an area they’re considering, to look for signs of positive relationships among residents -- such as whether they stop on the street to chat with each other.

“Even the most prestigious neighborhoods can have real issues,” says Nash, noting that just a few problematic residents can create problems for an entire community.

To learn more about the underlying social dynamics of a community, don’t hesitate to go door-to-door to strike up conversations with residents and talk to local shopkeepers. Ask them about the pros and cons of living in the area.

-- Visit the neighborhood on multiple days.

Nash suggests that those with a strong interest in a community visit the area at varied hours. 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 midafternoon, at dinnertime and at 11 p.m. Notice whether people are relating to each other or staying holed up in their homes nearly all of the time,” he says.

In some neighborhoods, residents are superficially friendly yet don’t build in-depth relationships with each other.

-- Don’t rule out a brand-new community.

Are you interested in moving to a subdivision that’s still under development but fear it could be an unfriendly place to raise your family? If so, Nash suggests you learn more about the community before rejecting it based on what could be an unfounded belief.

Granted, brand-new communities are often populated by two-income families with parents in their 20s to 40s who have extremely demanding daily schedules. Still, many who move to these new areas are highly motivated to build lasting friendships.

“Another positive is that in a brand-new neighborhood, everyone comes in from the same starting point. There’s no established social hierarchy for a newcomer to break into,” Nash says.

-- Remember that all good relationships take time and effort.

Those with a support structure within the immediate radius of their home have many advantages. 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 building positive relationships. You need to socialize during times of celebration as well as in times of need.

“Don’t kid yourself that the neighbors will really be there for you when you urgently need their help if you’re not staying in touch throughout the year. As we all know, it takes a friend to make friends,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at