Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Pick a Friendly Neighborhood

Two years ago, Skylar Olsen and her young family moved from a townhouse in a hip Seattle neighborhood to Bainbridge Island, a bucolic part of western Washington state. There they selected a much more spacious, 3,000-square-foot house on a cul-de-sac in a freshly constructed subdivision.

Until recently, Olsen and her husband were doing the arduous daily commute by ferry to their offices in Seattle. But fast-forward to the COVID-19 era, and the couple, now working solely from home, are thrilled to be living in a friendly, family-oriented area where they’ve established many fulfilling relationships with other residents.

“It turned out to be a blessing we chose to live on the periphery in such a welcoming neighborhood,” says Olsen.

Olsen, an expert on housing trends, says the sort of lifestyle her family selected is what an increasing number of current buyers have come to favor during the new work-from-home era, when close-knit communities are highly prized.

“Social support from neighbors is so much more important now that most of us aren’t going to an office, a gym or any other places where we could get our social needs met,” says Olsen, the senior principal economist for Zillow, which tracks real estate markets throughout the country.

Despite the recession, housing experts say home sales have been unexpectedly strong this summer, powered in large measure by millennials motivated to move to a larger space in a congenial community setting.

“Through June, the housing recovery has been just frankly remarkable,” says Ivy Zelman, who tracks homebuilder stocks for Zelman & Associates, the New York-based research firm she heads (

As Zelman notes, near-record-low mortgage rates are a major driver keeping home sales strong. Although furloughed employees typically can’t qualify for a home loan, many who are lucky enough to retain well-paying jobs suited to remote work are now on the prowl for a different property more suited to their evolving lifestyles.

Here are a few pointers for buyers:

-- Investigate the “social culture” of any neighborhood you’re considering.

Mark Nash, a longtime real estate broker and analyst, says 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.

“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.

“It only takes a couple of curmudgeons to make everyone a little sour. A couple of intense ‘partyaholic’ guys could also spoil a neighborhood,” he says.

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.

-- Visit the neighborhood on multiple occasions.

Nash, the author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home,” 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 of the time,” he says.

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

“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.

-- Consider a brand-new development where friendships are still forming.

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 demanding daily schedules. Still, many who move to these new areas are highly motivated to build lasting friendships with neighbors.

“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.

-- Realize that friendship is inevitably a reciprocal activity.

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 that batch of cookies they’re baking, they can also find neighbors to help ensure the security of their home when they’re away on vacation, for example. Most important, they can count on help in an emergency situation.

But 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 socialize during times of celebration as well as times of need.

“All good relationships are inevitably reciprocal. So, unless you’re interacting with your neighbors continuously, it’s unreasonable to expect they’ll be much help when you’re in a bind and need them terribly,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at