What's the neighborhood really like?
September 16, 2023 6:23 PM   Subscribe

How does one ethically figure out what potential neighbors are like before buying or renting a house in a neighborhood?

I'm saving to buy or rent a house. But the minute I think that I could live next to a neighbor with an unreasonable barky dog, a chainsmoker in the backyard, loud parties into the night, or other things that bother me that arent reasonable living stuff, I'd rather stay in my current bad situation than move.

There are houses for sale in my current neighborhood, but I immediately know I couldn't live there because I know that neighbors next door are chainsmokers or at another house, I don't want to share a fence with certain neighbors who are nosy, uppity and racist types.

I know I'm being way too picky. But I'd rather live in a temporary situation where the surrounding neighbors are fine, than move to a place where noise or smoke will be an issue.

So how does one figure this stuff out?
posted by AnyUsernameWillDo to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Next door or Citizen, both of which are probably considered “ problematic” here on the Green.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:25 PM on September 16 [6 favorites]

Visiting the area at different times of day (and night, if possible).
posted by kinddieserzeit at 6:35 PM on September 16 [27 favorites]

To some extent you can visit the neighborhood at different times of day and days of the week to get a sense for e.g. noise levels, someone constantly out smoking, etc. You can certainly look for some of the telltale stuff - what kind of lawn signs or bumper stickers do you see if you go for a walk around the area? Is there a neighborhood council you can access meeting minutes for, that might give you a sense of the vibe and concerns in the area?

But to some extent, you could do all the legwork in the world and still find that your carefully vetted neighbor sells their house to a racist asshole with a loud dog three months later. You'll need to factor that possibility in no matter what. That may make it worthwhile to spend some energy thinking about if you want to prioritize a place with some decent privacy from the neighbors in case things don't go well.
posted by Stacey at 6:38 PM on September 16 [43 favorites]

Cruise around on Google Street View; look for Facebook Groups for the neighbors to see how much drama there is; see what kind of stuff is for sale on the nearest Facebook Marketplace; find out if there is a local free paper and check a few issues; and plug the street name into Google with the year and words like "arrest" or "disorderly" or whatever.

Yeah, none of these are "ethical" but they are what I would do (and have done).

The only ethical way would be to introduce yourself to the neighbors, or talk to a friendly realtor, and get to know them. But who has time for that?
posted by wenestvedt at 6:45 PM on September 16 [4 favorites]

When I was looking to buy house I visited the neighborhood a couple times and asked some people who were outside their house how the neighborhood was. Got positive replies and I'm happy with my neighborhood 11 years later.
posted by Saucywench at 6:49 PM on September 16 [17 favorites]

I once had someone stop me on my block as I was getting my mail and ask these questions! He was polite and I had no problem telling him that is was a lovely block but the HOA was terrible and there was multiple people who gave music lessons from their homes so if children learning to play the flute wasn’t his jam he might want to reconsider.
posted by lepus at 6:51 PM on September 16 [15 favorites]

But to some extent, you could do all the legwork in the world and still find that your carefully vetted neighbor sells their house to a racist asshole with a loud dog three months later. You'll need to factor that possibility in no matter what. That may make it worthwhile to spend some energy thinking about if you want to prioritize a place with some decent privacy from the neighbors in case things don't go well.

We had this happen once -- less than six months after we moved in, the really nice people across the street moved out and instead a new set of meth-using neighbors moved in for a while. (They were actually really nice people, but the disorder in their lives spilled out into the block and it got old pretty fast.)

So yes, do your diligence but also you just have to accept the risk that people will move in and out of neighboring houses as time goes on. Having at least some level of privacy in the layout of your house/apartment helps a lot when that neighbor turnover isn't so great.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:06 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

Our real estate agent lived in the neighborhood and after we showed interest in one house, they told us they would not buy that because of a neighbor or that was why the owners were selling, bc of a neighbor. They said we could make our own decision, but we should know that piece of information. We were moving from out of town so had no ability to drive the neighborhood once much less multiple times. I flew in for the weekend twice and we picked a house.

Apparently, the people we purchased the house from who I thought were nice (and still do think that) pissed off one of the neighbors who did not speak to them for years. A few months after we moved in, it was Halloween and my kids and I stopped next door. THe woman who answered was really nice and fawning after my kids, 2, 3, and 4 at the time and asked where we lived. When I said I lived next door, she was very apologetic and said she did not see us move in and told us they had beef with the previous owners. They were nice as could be. Turned out the woman was a teacher in the local elementary school. My point is that both people, my former owners and the neighbors were nice people when you talked to them individually, but there was some beef about something at some point that made each of them hate their neighbors.

Neighbors are like relatives, you can't choose who they are. They come and go. It is my belief that if you are neighborly, and reasonable, they will at least try to be too. However, assholes are going to asshole. We had a band party, local HS kids played classic rock in our backyard. We invited all the neighbors, told them when it would be well in advance and told them we would comply with local noise ordinances. Most did not come. A few go the free beer and lobster boil. We alos hired an off duty local cop to direct traffic. He came to us at 10:30, said there was one noixe complaint but we had to 11:00 to shut it down. At 11:00 he came back, I gave him a full plate of lobster, corn, potatoes and he gave us another 20 minutes before we shut it down.

I know you are not asking how to be a good neighbor, but from that moment on, we got along with all of our neighbors even though some were assholes. Because we complied with local law, we had no problem asking them to be quiet and then if necessary, calling the cops. That only happened once. It also turned out the parents were not home and the college age boy and HS boy and girl had a party at their parent's house without their knowledge. The HS kids came over to apologize the next day and offered to babysit for free as compensation. They were good kids so we told them ok, but when we got home that night, we paid them anyway.

When I sold the house after my divorce, I introduced the new family to the neighbors because I was sitll friends with some of them and would be on the block semi often.

If you are waiting for the perfect neighbors, you will never buy (or rent) somewhere else. At some point you have to jump in the water. Ask a few people on the street as Saucywench and lepus among others said and ask. Most will give you the straight skinny.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:38 PM on September 16 [12 favorites]

What, exactly, would you consider "ethical"? If I thought a potential neighbor was a racist, I wouldn't hesitate to introduce myself and float some dog whistles to see how they react. I suppose one could say that this ruse was unethical/ and an act of dishonesty, but if it exposes a shit person, it would be worth the effort, IMO. I would peruse something like Nextdoor without hesitation. Precisely because I consider it suspect, and weigh any info with the proper grain of salt. Any HOA at all would immediately be suspected of shittiness until proven otherwise.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:39 PM on September 16 [3 favorites]

Since it sounds like you're interested in buying in the area where you live: it could help to get a local referral to a real estate agent who knows the neighborhood, tell them your timeline, and work with them to learn more about what your options are and what the tradeoffs would be. Ideally your lease goes month-to-month after a year, which gives you flexibility to decide when you're ready to put in an offer on something.
posted by dreamyshade at 8:43 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

My neighborhood has an extremely active Facebook group that will give you a realistic flavor for what living here is like.
posted by notjustthefish at 9:53 PM on September 16 [4 favorites]

What, exactly, would you consider "ethical"?

One must reconnoiter the neighborhood before agreeing to move in, ideally at all hours. Would hiring a detective to do that be unethical? I think not, but who has the time and resources for that? (In my experience, the decision to move in is always made hastily, because of various pressures). I would also recommend interrogating potential neighbors, if you can; and why not? You've got nothing to lose, especially if your questions reveal the neighborhood's flaws (but I've never had the nerve to do this, myself).

And as pointed out upthread, good neighbors sometimes move away, and are replaced with jerks. Then, you'll have to move on, as well.

Good Luck!
posted by Rash at 11:19 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

When we were deciding whether to buy our house, our realtor heavily encouraged us to go and knock on the doors of the immediate neighbors and introduce ourselves and ask what they thought of the neighborhood, how long they’d lived there, what they liked and disliked about it, etc. This was partly to find out about the neighborhood in general but mostly just an excuse to meet the immediate neighbors and, you know, get their vibes. Our realtor actually accompanied us for this and did a lot of the talking because we were a bit intimidated about just knocking on strangers’ doors, ha. I recommend it, in combination with just chatting with folks you see in the neighborhood. Just say you’re considering moving in nearby and ask if they like living there. In my experience a lot of folks will be happy to chat with you.
posted by peperomia at 1:05 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

Cruise around on Google Street View...

The Street View images of my part of the neighborhood are still the ones taken just after construction over ten years ago, so YMMV.

Many neighborhoods have Facebook groups, but many of them (like mine) are private. Discoverable, but not accessible without permission, so that might not be helpful. If the neighborhood is walkable, I’d suggest taking a long stroll throughout the place, to get a feel for how well the homes are kept, litter, etc. My neighborhood has no limit on rentals, and property-management companies have been gobbling-up homes when they come on the market. And, unfortunately, and as negatively stereotypical as it may sound, the rentals stick-out like a very sore thumb. Neither the management companies nor the renters seem to give a shit and it shows. Keep an eye out for this. If it seems like there’s a large number of rentals, I’d really suggest passing (I apologize if that rubs people the wrong way, but that’s how things have shaken out in my area. The rentals here are fucking eyesores.)

Unfortunately, if the market where you are is as nuts as it (still!) is here, you really won’t be able to take much time to investigate the place, as the house will likely be snatched-up beforw you get a bid in (especially if management companies are involved.)
posted by Thorzdad at 4:06 AM on September 17 [5 favorites]

When I found the house I wanted to buy, I drove through the neighborhood and saw a lot of BLM flags and LGBTQ flags, so I knew this was the place for me. Then, during the home inspection, I sat on the front steps and talked to multiple neighbors while they were out walking. All were very friendly and welcoming.

Before even looking at the house, I looked at the crime maps for the neighborhood. I wouldn't even waste my time looking at a house if the neighborhood seemed unsafe.
posted by poppunkcat at 4:59 AM on September 17 [3 favorites]

My neighborhood has an extremely active Facebook group that will give you a realistic flavor for what living here is like.

Our town FB groups are full of only the craziest people (including me) and the most contentious issues, I would not go by this.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:17 AM on September 17 [12 favorites]

/The only ethical way would be to introduce yourself to the neighbors, or talk to a friendly realtor, and get to know them. But who has time for that?

Someone who expects to spend 5 to 50 years of their life living there? I don't mean inviting everyone on the block to dinner, but when you are walking around the neighborhood, introduce yourself to people you see, let them know you're interested in living in the area, and ask them what is like living there. I would even leave a note or knock on the doors of the immediate neighbors once you are serious about a house.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 5:43 AM on September 17 [3 favorites]

Some of this is just house-buying jitters (which are totally normal). You can move to a different rental -- your options aren't just "buy" and "stay in a bad spot forever."
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 6:34 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

I'm saving to buy or rent a house.

There are good suggestions here. But I guess I'd interrogate my reasons for wanting a house. Renting a house seems like a good middle...you still have freedom of movement when the lease is up, which is what you seem concerned about.

Neighbors come and go, but if you own the home, you may be stuck with them.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:42 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

Walk around at different hours, talk to neighbors. Hope for the best. You will have unpleasant interactions, sometimes even with people you like when a fence goes up or a tree comes down. Or they have guests who are a problem.

I find nextdoor marginal at best. Mine has commenters from a 20 mile radius and threads get dredged up from years ago.

Nothing is perfect - my interviews failed to find that my house is a school bus stop, which wouldnt have stopped me but felt less than thorough. No one I spoke to mentioned that the megalandlord building down the block sometimes has dealing or sex work happening. Probably because other than making street parking tighter there were no direct issues while that lasted.

I really like my block 20 years later, most problems were temporary. A “coal roller” truck owner who covered his giant pipes with a trash barrel to start it every morning to really get a nice cloud going only lasted three months, a dude who would get shitfaced and sit in his truck blasting tunes at 1 am lasted a while but it stopped. Some things and some structures that bug me each day get outweighed by the total neighbor experience over time.

Going full circle - almost every neighbor I talked to is still here. And thank goodness no one has sold their houses to one of the megalandlords who buy a house and do no upkeep. But I find the number of people parking on the sidewalk and front patch is increasing (with empty driveways and paved back yards), and I have to resist the urge to post on nextdoor…
posted by drowsy at 6:45 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

It may not be easy, depending on the neighborhood, but try arranging to spend a night nearby. I am thinking of a relative who bought a house to work at home from, only to find that the nearest intersection had trucks braking at all hours and particularly near dawn, interfering with their sleep and concentration. That's the kind of thing that might not bother everyone, but crucially, there would be no complaint you could make about it.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:25 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

Bit of a tangent, but the empty lot adjacent to my property is on the market. I was out doing yard work one day, when a car slowly drove by with the windows down, looking at the lot. They didn't see me, and as they rolled by my house, the woman pointed at my Black Lives Matter and Progress Pride yard signs, and muttered, "ugh...but do we really want to live next to people like that?" As I am currently finishing up painting the house anyway, I've decided to paint the garage door as a giant Progress Pride flag. If it works to deter people like that...

Which is to say, you can maybe do a little recon based on yard signs, political campaign signs, etc. in the area or neighboring houses, and make at least some educated guesses as to how well you'd get along with those folks.
posted by xedrik at 8:26 AM on September 17 [9 favorites]

Personally, if something is public information I'd have no ethical qualms about accessing it.

Many people are unaware that because it is public information. You can also look up political contributions over $200.

The website Niche is spotty, but has reviews from residents about neighborhoods.
posted by Miko at 8:29 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

In my city, you can call the local community police line and give them the postal code where you're thinking about moving to (which translates into a block here) and they will tell you the type and number of calls they've made there over the past two years. When I was looking for a place a couple of years ago, the officer I spoke to alerted me to the presence of two meth houses in what seemed to be a very well-kept block. You might also be able to do the same thing with bylaw complaints, which would tell you a lot about how people are behaving and how they solve problems. These could be useful points of info to supplement your own sense after walking around, driving through the neighbourhood at different times of day or night etc..
posted by rpfields at 8:43 AM on September 17 [6 favorites]

Walk around the neighborhood with a dog a few times after work/on the weekend. You'll easily run into people to talk with. Tell them you're thinking of buying a house in the area and ask them what they think of the neighborhood.
posted by twelve cent archie at 9:43 AM on September 17 [5 favorites]

There are a lot of great ideas here.

I look at voting. When choosing a new place to live last year, we pored over the 2016, 18 & 20 voting results, right down to the precinct to get a sense of the neighborhood. The level of voting year on year gives you a sense of civic engagement. If your county website allows, you can drill down to see if folks are just voting on the state, national slots and not the school district positions. (I don't necessarily know how to judge what some of that means, however.)

We did end up renting for 6 months before buying, because I was unsure about the neighborhood, but the try before you buy has its merits (and we were moving from 200 miles away). I've attended a few neighborhood advisory counsel meetings (which are helpfully held on zoom), that gives me a great sense of the minutiae of the area.

Also, cruising Google street view and using their feature for other years is also helpful. How have neighborhoods changed? Seeing into back yards on the satellite view to see if folks had back yards, or piles of vehicles on blocks or rows of dog kennels. Are the streets busy & well trafficked?

Read the local newspapers, look at the local nextdoor, facebook, reddit or just craigslist postings. Smaller communities publish police blotters. One of our small towns has been rated with the most "criminal activity" but when you read the blotter you realize that they consider a lot of petty stuff "crime", and the bad crimes (hit and run, car break ins, bike theft) can often be mitigated. If there are yard sales in the area, that an be a great way to poke around without knocking on doors. Or other open houses, and you can eavesdrop on realtors and prospective buyers. When looking for our place, we went to open houses for places we weren't interested in, just to get a sense of all types of homes, buyers & sellers.

Finding out the balance of rentals/owners and short term vacation/homestays can help you gauge how tight knit it may be. Don't dismiss rental neighborhoods. My last street was about 50/50, and we still managed a block party every year and knew each other by name (or at least by their dog's names).
posted by typetive at 10:21 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

1) You have to also consider that, if your neighbors move, you might not have a lot of control over who moves in later.

2) I suppose it's possible a HOA could have rules that match your needs. If so, please send me the info! Mostly HOAs aren't that great.

3) Maybe co-housing, or an intentional community, would give better results?
posted by amtho at 12:32 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]

Definitely walk around. Weekdays, weekends, different times of days. We saw lots of kids and parents (we have a young kids ourselves), lots of scooters and bicycles. Local butcher that seemed thriving, people relaxing at the local cafe with their dogs. Trees had signs for 1) upcoming local events like the harvest festival and 2) what type of tree it was, organised by the neighborhood gardening club. All nice vibes.

When we were viewing our neighborhood, I saw a lot of “support NHS nurses” types of signs (it was right after lockdown) and one house had signage explaining it was a food bank drop off point and what things they needed this week. We eventually bought on this street and it’s been lovely. I’ve also seen signs for BLM and supporting Ukraine. Despite it being a pretty white, middle class neighborhood I’m happy so many neighbours go the extra mile to be vocal about their inclusive views. We really struck gold and I pinch myself once in a while to make sure it’s real.
posted by like_neon at 1:25 AM on September 18 [3 favorites]

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