trying to buy a house
June 12, 2011 8:13 PM   Subscribe

Should my wife and I buy a house near some not so well kept houses?

My wife and I are looking to buy a house in Los Angeles. It's not easy to find a house in a safe neighborhood of Los Angeles when you're not rich. We're not poor by any means. We make just about $100,000 a year. If we lived in almost any other city in the US we'd have our pickings of some great houses. But here in LA, unless you're willing to spend about 650,000 or more on a house, it's hard to buy something in a nice upper middle class type of neighborhood. We've put an offer on a home in an area that's pretty much right across the border of one of the nicest areas of LA. The area we are looking at certainly isn't the ghetto, but it's not the classic safe suburbia life that exists in other places. The house we're looking at is on a fairly quiet street. And most of the houses on the street look well kept as do others on surrounding streets. The thing that concerns me is that a couple of houses surrounding the house that we're looking at do not look well kept. Some of the neighbors I've seen I'd classify as borderline shady but not terrible. When you move to the second part of the street, past the cross street it's much nicer. The house itself is great. Nice size, good yard, totally remodeled. My wife says it seems fine to her and she loves the house, as do I. But I'm just not sure about the location on the street. I've looked online at crime statistics and it seems no worse then the really nice area just minutes down the street. Is a bad idea to buy this house because of the not well maintained houses near buy, along with some shady neighbors? We're first time home buyers. We wanna buy and be in the same house for a while. Any help here is appreciated.
posted by ljs30 to Work & Money (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In favor:
- pretty much right across the border of one of the nicest areas of LA.
- on a fairly quiet street.
- most of the houses on the street look well kept as do others on surrounding streets
- When you move to the second part of the street, past the cross street it's much nicer.
- The house itself is great.
- crime statistics... seems no worse then the really nice area just minutes down the street.

- a couple of houses surrounding the house that we're looking at do not look well kept.
- Some of the neighbors I've seen I'd classify as borderline shady but not terrible.

You can't escape unkempt houses in LA, not even in the nicest hoods. And you don't know your neighbors yet. Bring something good to the neighborhood, and count on your fellow home-owners to do the same.

Past that it's pretty tough answering this question without knowing where exactly you've moving to.
posted by carsonb at 8:29 PM on June 12, 2011

Also in favor:
- Nice size, good yard, totally remodeled.
- My wife says it seems fine to her and she loves the house, as do I.
posted by carsonb at 8:30 PM on June 12, 2011

This is difficult because LA is just not like other markets. IME (8 years in LA, worked in real estate way back when in NYC) neighborhoods here don't gentrify and get nicer quickly, if at all. Lately I've noticed a new mix of nicer places slathered on top of, and interspersed between, some truly shady shadiness.

I live in West Hollywood now and occasionally marvel at all the now expensive houses (usually situated on the "flats") that still have burly wrought iron security bars on them left over from when this 'hood wasn't as nice. Not apartments, houses.

WeHo incorporated I think about 25 years ago, and we're still working it out in some ways crime-wise.

I also think crime here works differently than in other cities I've lived in. It doesn't confine itself to boundaries, y'know?

It's a tough call. I thought my old street in Korea Town was much nicer than surrounding blocks until there was a drive-by shooting on the corner 2 buildings away from where I lived.

It's a case by case situation, hard to call.

There are few neighborhoods here I would invest in long term. YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 8:33 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

While it might be less kosher in LA than here in the Midwest (though I'd doubt not), both times I've bought a house I've picked an evening, gone to the neighborhood, parked, and walked around for a bit. Then I've picked a couple neighboring houses and just knocked on the door. I've explained that I was looking at the house next door, across the street, whatever. In every case, I've learned most everything I needed to know about the house, the neighborhood, etc, in a 5 minute conversation with future neighbors.
posted by jferg at 8:35 PM on June 12, 2011 [13 favorites]

I'm in L.A. and in a very similar situation. (Let me just say in advance, L.A. people understand EXACTLY what your situation is, and perhaps people from other areas will not.)

You might try knocking on doors one weekend day -- asking the folks in the well-kept houses what they think of the neighbors in the less well-kept homes. The unkempt peeps might be shady-looking, but quiet, cool, and not a problem. Or they might be a big problem.

15 years ago we bought the nicest house we could afford in a pretty good neighborhood, right next door to a rundown place. That place is still rundown, and getting worse by the day. We're actually thinking of increasing the height of the wall between our homes so we don't have to see it all the time. (Even though the wall would be too high by city code, and might get us a fine.) The neighbors are assholes, and the police are there about 3 times a year. They get into fistfights with each other (the neighbors, not the cops), have loud parties and a pitbull, and are generally awful. But we've learned to ignore about 95% of it.

Short answer: It's really, really tough to find a place in L.A. and you might just want to go ahead with this place you've found.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:37 PM on June 12, 2011

I bought a house in similar circumstances (in MN) although I bought at the top of the market so my situation doesn't apply 100%. You should find a buyer's agent and talk to them about this. My agent classified the neighborhood I wanted to buy in as "third tier" and was really concerned about resale. She's right in that I will have a hard, hard time finding a buyer for this house in this market, which was hard hit by the recession.

In day to day life, the difficulty I have is that a number of houses are empty, crime is high, and the police don't seem to care. My house was burglarized a few years ago as part of a string of breakins (like, 10 homes in a few block radius) and the police never really did anything about it. In addition, there's no neighborhood watch because the few people left on my block don't care either. There's no sense of community. I'll admit that I haven't done anything about it.

If you're really planning to stay for awhile, the resale issue may be moot. However, if you're hoping for one of those neighborhoods where you have block parties and neighborhood garage sales and you bring a pie to the new neighbor, then it might not be the right place for you. Then again, the neighborhood could surprise you, sometimes these neighborhoods have a few longstanding families that are the center of the community.

All that said, talk to a buyer's agent, try and visit the neighborhood at different times of day/different days, and check crime stats.
posted by cabingirl at 8:38 PM on June 12, 2011

In my neighborhood (DC), most of the less-nice houes belong to elderly residents who have lived there for a long, long time. They own their houses, because the value of the properties here trended toward zero after DC's 1968 riots, and didn't really recover until the past decade.

Now, they own a fully-paid-for property, and can't really afford to move elsewhere in the city. Basically, they're stuck, albeit with no rent payments, and in a neighborhood that's a lot safer and nicer than it's ever been. In my neighborhood, the oldtime residents are pretty affable toward the "gentrifiers," although this is a fairly unique situation. Unlike the other gentrifying neighborhoods in DC, the vacancy rate was high enough here that very few residents were "forced" out. There's a lot more tension in some of the other neighborhoods that underwent a significant racial and socioeconomic shift at the direct expense of the existing residents. It also didn't hurt that, for whatever reason, the gentrifiers in my neighborhood were not all white.

As soon as the residents move out, unrenovated rowhouses are snatched up pretty quickly by developers, gutted and refurbished over the course of 2 months, and re-sold for about $200,000 more. If there's a crappy house sitting amongst much nicer ones, it's because the owner's been there for a long time, and isn't about to move.

Also, don't write off working-class and immigrant communities as "shady." These people are usually fine neighbors to have.

Also, don't use the term "ghetto" or "bad part of town." I'm from a 'bad part of town' that's got lower per-capita crime rates across the board than the "safest" neighborhoods. It's pretty offensive to have those phrases used to describe the place that I call home, especially when it's so inaccurate, and based almost solely on the "feel" and racial composition of my neighborhood.
posted by schmod at 8:45 PM on June 12, 2011

Oh, and that said, LA's a bit different from other cities, thanks to the "patchwork" way in which it was planned and built. The usual patterns of gentrification may not apply there.
posted by schmod at 8:46 PM on June 12, 2011

The thing that concerns me is that a couple of houses surrounding the house that we're looking at do not look well kept.

Owner-occupied or renter-occupied?

Some of the neighbors I've seen I'd classify as borderline shady but not terrible.

Owners or renters?

I'm not anti-renter, but those facts would change my analysis. The question is not as simple as "I don't like the way neighboring houses look. Should I still buy it?" Whether or not the neighborhood is going to become tidier or safer over time depends on who owns it, their motivations, the likelihood of resident turnover, the likelihood of new ownership, the likelihood the owner would invest in repairs... Also, how long are you willing to wait for that change to occur?
posted by salvia at 8:50 PM on June 12, 2011

"Let me just say in advance, L.A. people understand EXACTLY what your situation is, and perhaps people from other areas will not."

Repeated because it's true.

(LA confounds me on so many levels, but your question harkens to an issue that's on the top of my list. BlahLaLa'a experience with their neighbor of 15 years? So, so common.)
posted by jbenben at 8:50 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

We're in LA too. I second the walking the neighborhood and talking to other neighbors, although in LA I would do this on a weekend, don't go knocking on doors at night here. I also agree that renter occupied vs. owner occupied will be a consideration for the condition of the house.

I really jumped in to say don't forget that the economy is bad. In ou neighborhood we've noticed that normally well-kept properties seem to be less so in the last couple of years, even though the owners haven't changed. So we give those folks a pass and hope things get better for them.

My main consideration would be the school district, that will be a major factor in overall value and re-sale value later on.
posted by vignettist at 9:03 PM on June 12, 2011

Drive through the neighborhood and street a few different times of day, weekends and weekdays, if you can. I think that will get you a better sense of the nature of the street and its residents. Who are the majority of the residents? Families with kids? Retired people? What flavor of shady people? Is the neighborhood still quiet on Friday and Saturday evenings? On the weekends do you see any kids out playing? People out front doing yardwork? Are there shady people hanging around during weekday daytime hours?

I'm in LA and can totally relate to your question. I have friends who live on streets that exactly fit your description, but all over LA! Some are doing great, and a have bit of local community with other families, and everyone just ignores the shady neighbours. One family moved house after run-ins with crime spilling over from nearby busy streets. I think you have to talk to people nearby as well as seeing the street at different times to get a true picture.
posted by Joh at 9:08 PM on June 12, 2011

Check the local county or municipal GIS to determine if those unkempt places are owner-occupied or rentals. If they're rentals, particularly if the owners aren't in town, those places probably won't get any better. As mentioned above, they might be long-term owners too, but if you don't dig a bit deeper, you'll never know the situation and won't be comfortable with the decision you're trying to make.
posted by pappy at 9:09 PM on June 12, 2011

Oh yeah, this link to the LA count assessors office might help too. You can see how long it is since the run down houses changed hands, which might be an additional clue about the neighborhood.
posted by Joh at 9:32 PM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you have or are you planning to have children? If yes, what are the boundary elementary/middle and high schools like for the house you are interested in? Are they the same schools as the ones in the nearby nicer neighborhood? That alone can cause a big jumps in price and it's something you should take into consideration even if you plan to send your child to private school* or when it comes time to sell the house.**

*Because sometimes you will not be able to find a private school that will take your kid.

**Because future buyers will consider the quality of local schools too.
posted by jamaro at 11:57 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

You are making every effort to look at all sides but at the end of the day nothing can guarantee there won't be neighbour problems.
We bought an apartment in a newbuild in Dublin 8, a seriously deprived section of Dublin inner city and for 7 idyllic years not only made connections who we now treat as family, but had some of the best experiences a young family can have.

We moved to a very upper middle class development in the UK and had the neighbours from hell for 3 years ending in an assault on me and police convinction for the neighbour. Nothing about the physical appearance of the house would have told us the story, or the vibe on the street no matter how often I would have passed by.

They were renters and the majority of people were owners so there is that.
posted by Wilder at 2:17 AM on June 13, 2011

Our house (San Francisco, in the Mission) isn't awesome to look at, but we're nice neighbors; same with the other people on the block, mostly. The really crappy-looking house across our backyard was supposed to have renovations start months ago, but nothing's happened; there used to be awful neighbors there, but they moved, and the remaining ones (it's a multifamily building) are at least quiet.

Nthing the advice to go by in the evenings and check out the vibe, and talk to other people on the street. Maybe the immediate neighborhood isn't on a gentrification upswing, but if you're going to live there for a while - that is, you're not hoping to sell the house for $lottamoneymorethanyoupaid in a few years - then think about how much that matters.

I will say that I don't think that, from what people have said here, LA is all that unique in how neighborhoods change. When I lived in DC, our block was mostly gentrified, and so was the street two blocks over; in between, not so much. I've seen similar patterns here in my own 'hood - it's very patchwork, with new condos going up on blocks A, C and F, and neglected properties in between. I've lived here nearly ten years and many of those neglected properties have not improved much.

To me, it's more important that neighbors be neighborly than it is that their house (which may be owned by a jerk absentee landlord) be nice-looking. We're also not planning on selling any time soon (or ever), though, so that's obviously a factor.
posted by rtha at 6:32 AM on June 13, 2011

The usual advice is to buy the worst house in the nicest area you can afford. Especially if it is the kind of place where all it needs is some TLC- paint, tearing out overgrown weeds, tearing down a ramshackle garage, etc. You can rehab your house, you can't rehab your neighbors.
posted by gjc at 6:55 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wanted to second jamaro's comment about the schools. When I read your comment about how there were nice houses a couple of blocks over, one of the first things that came to mind was the thought that you might be located right on a school district boundary of some sort and it pays to check to see where you are. If you are planning to stay a while and not have kids then you may not care about the district, but for resale purposes it can't hurt to check.

(I'm not from the city, but from suburban Los Angeles, where the same exact house and lot certainly differ based almost exclusively on school district since the majority of people buying houses out there are looking to raise a family so they're going to care about schools.)
posted by andrewesque at 7:25 AM on June 13, 2011

We bought a house in your same situation.

We wanted a safe neighborhood, but didn't have a lot of money.

The blocks surrounding our house are amazing. The houses across the street are amazing. But, we live in a row of six houses that are terrible. We bought the house in the middle and it looks amazing (but stuck between three houses on each side that look like crap).

It was a great decision and these are reasons why:

--All the houses in our neighborhood (except the six houses) sell for over $345,000. But we bought ours for $200,000 even though it is just like the $345,000 houses. Just because it sits in between six crappy houses, we paid $145,000 less for it.

--Our neighbor to the north foreclosed. An investor bought it, re-did the whole darn thing, and now it's just as amazing as the other houses in our 'hood.

--The house to the south is going to foreclose soon. Same investor is going to buy it and fix that one, too.

--Two houses down, the lady saw what I did to my yard and she is going to mimmick it.

--So, within only one year, six crappy houses has now become only 3.5 crappy houses, and the remaining houses are owned by people in their 80's, so once they go, maybe the rest of the houses will be redone and look amazing, too.

--While the market is still tanking, our house value has risen due to the re-do's of our neighbor's houses in just one year.
posted by TinWhistle at 7:45 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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