Your Realtor noted the area playground and mentioned that the local elementary school tests in the top 5 percent of all Virginia elementary schools. But because of the Fair Housing Act, there's a lot about a neighborhood that a Realtor can't tell people who are looking for the perfect place to raise a family.
"Realtors have to be very careful about subjective terms — ‘nice neighborhood,' ‘great schools,' ‘friendly neighbors,' ‘safe area.' Anything that is open to interpretation is also open to misinterpretation," says Chris Small of Small Real Estate.
So, it's up to you, potential buyer, to get creative with your research and read between the lines as to whether you're buying in a neighborhood that's truly family-friendly.
Take, for example, how April Romers, a mother of four, investigated schools before she and her husband built a home in Sandston a few years ago. "I polled several teachers — who were friends — from other schools to see what they had heard about Seven Pines Elementary," she says. "You can look at scores, but sometimes you need to hear the ‘talk,' so to speak, to get a clear picture."
Families can also check the Virginia Department of Education's Web site (doe.virginia.gov) for information about a school's discipline, crime, violence and truancy statistics, according to Dale Theakston, a spokeswoman for Hanover County Public Schools.
Families obviously want to know how safe a neighborhood is. A lot of legwork can be done online, including searching the Virginia Sex Offender Registry (sex-offender.vsp.virginia.gov/sor/) and neighborhood crime reports from the local police department. Entering the neighborhood or street name on news Web sites also can turn up useful information.
Small, however, says that online data can't always be taken at face value. "This data changes all the time and may be great the month a person buys a house and can change radically over the course of a few years," he says. "This is also true of school-district boundaries — in general they are fairly stable, but they can change."
Doing a ride-along with police officers and spending time with neighborhood watch groups are also good ways to get a complete picture. "I encourage people to take walks in areas where they are thinking of buying if [those neighborhoods] are new to them, and talk to the people in the neighborhood," Small says.
With young children, traffic is a major
safety concern. So, before moving to Sandston, Romers drove through the neighborhood several days in a row at different times to see what the traffic was like and how the streets looked at different times of the day. "With four kids, the last thing I wanted was to have a highway in front of my house," she says.
Observing a neighborhood also can fill you in on the general vibe. Christy Masry and her husband, Brett, don't have children yet, but they wanted to live somewhere that would allow their family to expand. So they let driveways do the talking during their West End house hunt. "Once we selected our ideal area, we spent a lot of time driving around the neighborhoods we liked," Masry says. "It might sound silly, but you can tell a lot about a neighborhood by the driveways: Are there minivans? Are there ‘Proud Parent of …' bumper stickers? Are there bikes and skateboards? Are people out and about? Are houses for rent in the neighborhood?"
Masry says she was pleased with what she saw when the school bus dropped off the neighborhood kids. "You would see lots of moms and younger children congregating, waiting for the elementary school kids to come home," she says. "It was a very comforting, almost nostalgically sweet image — all of those families at the end of our street."
Easy access to amenities such as day
care centers, libraries with story time and 24-hour drug stores for emergency diapers are also important to house-hunting families. "There's only basically one day
care center in Sandston, and that was a major problem," Romers says. "Where we built is three blocks from it ... but any farther would have been a major consideration." Romers knew, however, that the addition of White Oak Village would bring restaurants and shopping.
When it comes down to it, of course, families have to trust their instincts about a neighborhood. "What is ‘good' is so subjective," Small says. "It varies from one client to the next, and the whole point of [the Fair Housing Act] is that people be encouraged to make their own decision without the subjective opinion of their Realtor."
And Masry and her husband are confident that they chose the perfect family-centered neighborhood. "In hindsight, we probably could have done more research," she says, adding, "But we really got lucky. When we moved in, the sweet 'tween next door brought over brownies — and I remain optimistic that she'll baby-sit for us one day."