How to Tell If a Neighborhood Will Be Friendly

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Think about where you live now.

How many neighbors do you know well enough to borrow a cup of sugar from? To ask to watch your kids if your sitter cancels at the last minute?

If you're short on friends in your current neighborhood, you're not alone.

"The sad thing is that the majority of us are now two-income households. We come home at night and we're often too tired to get to know our neighbors," said Victoria M. Orlando, a broker-associate for the Los Alamitos office of Re/Max College Park.

While fewer people now have the energy to cultivate relationships, more want to move into friendly neighborhoods, Orlando said. Most home buyers relish the notion of having neighbors who invite them over for backyard barbecues, come by with a home-baked dinner when they're ill and watch their homes when they're out of town.

But such notions of old-fashioned neighborliness can be quickly dashed if you select a community where residents are solitary, indifferent or even surly to one another.

"The chemistry of a neighborhood is very important," said Philip Auswacks of Century 21 Ability in Camarillo, who has developed and sold real estate for 43 years.

Why should you care about the cordiality of your future community--especially if you're planning to buy in one of the Southland neighborhoods where property values are rising and you could sell your home more easily than in the past should your neighbors prove unpleasant? Because the costs associated with buying and selling real estate are high, compared with other investments.

You can now unload a large stock portfolio far more quickly and at a lower cost than you can a home. Even in a rosy economy, most financial planners caution against buying a property you expect to hold fewer than three to five years.

In any case, the obvious reality is that most people like having neighbors who are at least amicable--if not buddy-buddy (though they know friendliness is a two-way street).

"If you're a workaholic and you don't have much of a social life, getting together with a few neighbors can be a relaxing release of your energy," said Orlando.

The dividends are even greater if you have school-age kids who need wholesome companionship. "Knowing neighbors means knowing who your children's friends are," she said.

Should you end up living in a tight-knit area for many years, your children will grow up feeling more rooted and arrive at adulthood with happier memories, said Renee Hughes, who sells homes through Coldwell Banker-Jon Douglas Co. in Pacific Palisades.

Some neighborhood groups host regular events that can mean a lot to many children. Twice a year, for instance, Hughes' community puts on a festival called "Moonlight Madness," and streets are closed off for games and fun.

Even adults without children at home can appreciate the greater sense of security often afforded by a tight-knit community. Crime-prevention experts say that neighbors looking after neighbors can be one of the best deterrents to crime, especially if the community has an organized security program involving volunteers.

But how can you assess the quality of neighborhood life before you invest in a community? Here are four ideas:

No. 1: Look for neighborhoods in which character counts more than checkbook balances.

Contrary to what some buyers assume, high-income neighborhoods of new homes may be less welcoming than settled communities of any price range, Orlando said.

A nouveau riche neighborhood "can be a snotty, keep-up-with-the-Joneses kind of place," she said. Such areas tend to attract more hard-driving Type A personalities with the urge to prove they're successful through showy homes and luxury cars, she said.

People who have been well-to-do for a longer time--so-called "old money" families--often feel less of a compulsion to prove their worth in a competitive way, in Orlando's view.

They could be just as willing to drive a Chevrolet as a BMW and may be more willing than the newly rich to judge their neighbors by their character rather than their checking accounts, she believes.

Orlando has built many solid friendships in the section of Huntington Beach where she lives. This is a place populated primarily by those of average means--among them teachers, police officers and phone company employees.

Although Orlando's enclave has enjoyed dramatic appreciation in recent years (its residents could no longer afford to buy their own homes) the neighborhood remains close.

On the other hand, those who have purchased mini-palaces in expensive nearby communities often report that their neighbors are more competitive than cooperative, she said.

No. 2: Look for an area organized around a recreation magnet or school.

Some communities, whether old or new, are mere assemblages of homes. There is no central area where people can meet to socialize--such as a community hall, swimming pool, park or neighborhood elementary school that enjoys strong parental involvement.

The absence of such an organizing core makes it harder for people to assemble and see each other on a regular basis, said Auswacks, the Century 21 broker-associate from Camarillo. Generally, a community with a central gathering area is more likely to be friendly, he said.

No. 3: Consider an age-restricted area if you're a senior seeking sociability.

Across the age spectrum, neighborhood preferences vary widely. Whether you're 25 and single or 85 and married, living in a heterogeneous neighborhood may appeal to you. Perhaps you'll enjoy the vitality of a community with young families even if you have no children or your offspring are grown.

Nevertheless, a portion of the retired population flourishes in a seniors-only community, where most people are 55 or older and no longer employed. Before retirement, many find their social lives revolving around colleagues from work. But in later years, neighbors become more important and many retirement communities offer an extensive schedule of activities--from Sunday brunches to classes in French.

"Volunteering is a labor of love for activists in these places," said Auswacks, who has chosen a retirement community as his own place of residence.

No. 4: Investigate a community before you invest in a home there.

Since friendliness is an intangible, you can't tell whether a neighborhood is a warm, inviting place merely by driving through. Yet by picking up copies of community newspapers and newsletters, you can spot signs of activism and civic pride.

Orlando also suggests that you knock on a few residents' doors to sense if they are open people or standoffish individuals who may not even know their nearby neighbors' names. Trust is a contagious element in a community, so generalizations are possible.

"If you ask people whether they're happy and comfortable living there and they are, they'll just rattle on and on in answer to your questions," Orlando said.

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Ellen James Martin is a syndicated columnist. She can be reached via email at EllenWrite@aol.com. However, she cannot answer readers' questions individually.

Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

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