Play the Private Eye Before You Buy

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They were an upwardly mobile couple. So after the husband hooked a well-paying job with a law firm, the couple began looking for the big, showy home they'd always wanted.

But in their excitement, the couple bought too hurriedly. Their mini-mansion seemed resplendent from the street, with its high-pitched roof and turrets. Yet it proved an unhappy place to live.

Why? Because the couple next door were prone to verbal combat. And the racket from their shouting matches could be heard next door. The noise was enough to cause the lawyer and his wife, a therapist, to move away soon after buying their new place.

Had the couple taken a page from the notebook of an investigative reporter, they might have known about their next-door neighbors-to-be. Without improper snooping, they might have rung the doorbell of their prospective neighbors. And, if invited in, they could possibly have gotten a feeling for the other couple's combative relationship.

"You really need to poke around the neighborhood yourself," said Joan McLellan Tayler, the author of several real estate books, who counsels against relying solely on the advice of your buyer's agent.

To get below surface impressions of a neighborhood, Tayler suggests you select a nice Saturday or Sunday afternoon to drop by and chat with local residents.

"If you run into the neighborhood gossip, you're really in luck," she joked.

Of course, what goes on quietly behind closed doors is none of your business. But if the neighborhood you've pinpointed proves the domain of a rock band, motorcycle enthusiasts or groups of devil-may-care college students living in rental houses, you certainly have a right to know that before you purchase a home there, said Tayler, who is based in San Francisco.

"You shouldn't hesitate to introduce yourself to neighbors. You need to assert yourself when making one of the largest purchases you'll ever make," said Mickey Turner, a broker-associate for Re/Max Execs in Redondo Beach.

Here are some more pointers for home buyers:

* Consider the advantages of a heterogeneous neighborhood.

Are you part of a young family that relishes the notion of living in a community of peers, where virtually everyone's lifestyle is a clone of yours? As a dual-income couple with preschoolers, does life on a street where each morning most neighbors put their kids in the car and head off to work (after stopping at the day-care center) appeal to you?

Possibly so. But not everyone thrives on such homogeneity, said Kirby Wahl, an agent for Coldwell Banker in Laguna Beach. Some find a neighborhood occupied by people of mixed ages more appealing.

Having a few retired people or older homemakers can make a community more interesting--and less of a ghost town during business hours, Wahl said.

There's an element of security in having people there to watch over the neighborhood while you're at the office. After all, many burglaries occur during weekday hours, when intruders stalk unoccupied areas.

Ethnic and racial diversity is also a choice of an increasing number of home buyers, who value the richness of living alongside neighbors with varied traditions, Wahl said.

Growing up in an area of cultural and religious diversity can give children a more realistic sense of society.

* Get school information directly from parents.

Many home buyers accept bland generalizations from colleagues at work who've "heard about" high-quality schools in such-and-such an area.

Perhaps the same sentiment has been seconded by a real estate agent who hasn't set foot in a schoolhouse there for years. And a list of test scores from the local superintendent's office seems to confirm their impressions.

But test scores don't necessarily a good school make. The most valuable source of information about a local school comes from the parents who use it.

Local parents know if neighborhood classrooms are crowded. They'll know if the current principal has a nasty temper or is a good leader and administrator. They'll also know whether the school does well at serving the needs of a child with a talent for art, soccer or trigonometry or one with a learning disability.

Have you met at least one friendly resident whose children attend the local schools? Politely ask for her candid views. You should also ask her for the names and phone numbers of other parents.

Through a little networking you can get a surprising amount of information about community educational standards in a short while.

* Learn about a neighborhood's routines and idiosyncrasies.

Would you like to live in a hamlet made famous by its annual ritual of extravagant Christmas house lighting? Turner knows of a community like that in Torrance. He says some buyers consider the concept appealing, but others say the traffic that come by each December for sightseeing would drive them batty.

Even more annoying, Tayler said, would be the belated discovery that you have moved into a neighborhood where Halloween vandalism, including egg-throwing and spray-painting, is a yearly tradition. How could you discover this unhappy fact ahead of time? By asking the neighbors, of course.

Many people are also troubled by living in an area that attracts tourists or large numbers of pedestrians who crowd the streets and leave litter behind. They're also bothered to discover that what seems like a quiet residential street turns into a heavily traveled shortcut during commuting hours.

* Question the wisdom of moving next to a vacant home lot.

The lot next door may look like a green pasture now. But unless you're moving into a brand-new subdivision and the builder can show you the blueprints for precisely the home he plans to construct there, you could be in for an unfortunate surprise.

"The house could be dreadful and it could take away much of your light," said Tayler, the real estate author, who formerly owned a realty firm.

Even if you're satisfied that the future house next door won't be an eyesore, you should ponder the implications of living next to a construction site.

"Having construction next door is more than eight hours a day of punishment. You'll have dust, you have mud--and you always have that portable potty," Tayler cautioned.

*

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

Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

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