Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Choose a Friendly Neighborhood

In the midst of the pandemic, those with strong and sustainable incomes are smashing records for home-buying in appealing areas outside metro cores.

“Professionals able to work from anywhere basically view this entire economic disruption as an opportunity to live wherever they want,” says Glenn Kelman, the CEO of Redfin, the national real estate brokerage.

To get a bigger house for the money, these buyers, many of them the parents of young children, are willing to uproot and even change states to obtain a plush domain with loads of square footage. In some cases, they’re even considering resort communities.

“People are buying vacation homes and then taking a permanent vacation, where they’re working from those houses,” Kelman says.

Obviously, those working in fields suffering layoffs -- such as hospitality, travel and retail sales -- are in no position to buy a home these days. But some in sustainable white-collar industries are highly motivated to purchase a larger place.

“This level of demand is just insane,” Kelman says.

Adding to the sense of urgency for many buyers is the ascent of home prices, coupled with beguilingly low mortgage rates. They’re undaunted by the fact that desirable properties are in extremely short supply.

“Affordability is at the heart of this year’s noticeable migration from high-cost downtowns toward suburbs, small and midsized towns, and even vacation destinations,” says George Ratiu, a senior economist for Realtor.com, the national home listing service.

It’s true your money will typically buy more house if you choose a place many miles from a city. Yet real estate specialists urge home shoppers to thoroughly investigate any outlying area far from where they currently live before they commit.

“No house is an island. You could buy a splendid house in an area that looks appealing on the surface. But if you land in a community where neighbors rarely socialize, that could be an unhappy outcome,” says Mark Nash, a real estate analyst and author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.”

He says some buyers mistakenly assume that picking a community with expensive houses will yield them a warm, welcoming neighborhood. But that’s not always the case. “You could move to a tiny condo and find wonderfully interactive neighbors. Or you could buy your way into a super-fancy neighborhood and encounter snobby people who refuse to interact,” Nash says.

Here are few pointers for buyers:

-- Don’t rule out a brand-new subdivision or condo complex.

Are you weighing a move to a new development, but fear it would be unfriendly? If so, Nash suggests you learn more about the community before automatically rejecting it.

Granted, many condo buildings are populated by young professionals or two-income families who have extremely demanding daily schedules, even during a pandemic, that keep them busy for long hours. Still, many who move to new developments are motivated to build lasting friendships with neighbors.

“They’re open to making new friends because they have few established relationships,” Nash says.

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

Buyers who want a friendly, interactive community are advised to spend time there in search of clues about how people relate.

“Even coveted neighborhoods can have real issues. It only takes a couple of unpleasant, busybody residents to spoil the mood in the whole neighborhood. That’s particularly likely if they’re always on social media undercutting other people,” Nash says.

During the pandemic, you might be reluctant to go door-to-door. But even adhering to social distancing guidelines, you could still walk through a community on a weekend to chat with neighbors who are out in their yards.

-- Go visit a community you’re considering more than once.

Nash recommends that those with a strong interest in a target community visit at varied hours to look for patterns of human behavior.

“Drive through the neighborhood four times in a day -- during the morning, at midafternoon, at dinnertime and again at 11 p.m. Notice whether people are relating to each other or staying inside 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.

“Perhaps you’ll see people out walking their dogs who smile and wave to each other. But they seem too busy to stop and communicate,” Nash says.

-- Always remember that friendships are reciprocal.

Those with a support structure within the immediate radius of their home have many advantages. Not only can they borrow the cup of sugar they need to finish a batch of cookies, but they can also count on help in an emergency.

Still, as Nash says, moving to a friendly neighborhood won’t guarantee 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 interact during times of celebration as well as need.

“All good relationships, and that includes relationships with fellow residents, must be reciprocal if they are to be strong and enduring,” he says.

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