Buying a home is about more than the structure that you live in. It's about neighbors, a school district, nearby amenities and your lifestyle. Here are some tips to help you choose wisely:
Make a list of lifestyle/neighborhood priorities: This will require a family conference to establish a list of not only the desired home features, but also to identify what types of amenities your chosen neighborhood will need in order to satisfy your family's lifestyle profile. Are you avid golfers or do you prefer beach activities? Would you feel most comfortable in a gated community or does that type of community feel too restricted to suit your free spirited lifestyle? Do you own a motor-home, motorcycle, truck or other type of vehicle that might not be allowed in certain deed restricted communities? Pets and children are also high priority considerations when it comes to community living and finding a community that will be a comfortable fit for your family profile. If you're purchasing a home in a community that is ruled by a condo association, you will have a period of time to review the rules and regulations for that community. Take the time to read through the condo documents, with an eye out for all the the rules that might pertain to your family's lifestyle and personality. You don't want any surprises after moving in, so don't rush this step. When you're buying a home in a home owner's association, the deed restrictions and community rules are usually available, but it's not mandatory for the listing agent or the seller to provide those documents to a home buyer. Have your agent research that information and provide answers to all of the important neighborhood and lifestyle related concerns that will be essential to your family's long term happiness in that community. Be certain, if you're buying in a deed restricted community, that the association fees will fit into your budget and that you understand what is included and covered by those fees.
Try it before you buy it: It is always a great idea to 'stalk' the neighborhood, at different times of the day, to see what types of activities are going on. Note whether it's noisy or quiet, what social interactions the neighbors seem to have with each other, what the street traffic is like, if there are children or pets active in the area, and if people are considerate and conscientious about how they maintain their property. Park your car and walk the neighborhood and surrounding area to get a feel for what it's like to live in that community. Note the amenities, restaurants, parks, etc. that are nearby. Make sure that it feels right.
Do your own research: Your real estate agent is bound by law not to discuss certain neighborhood characteristics and data. If you have concerns about neighborhood safety, etc.; do some research on your own. Call local law enforcement agencies or go to the web to find the information that you desire, and that will answer your questions or concerns.
Use 'Tech Tools' to go virtual: If you don't live in the city or area where you're planning to purchase a home or second home, there are some really cool tools to help you get a feel for the neighborhood, digitally, or 'virtually.' Google Street Maps is a great tool for this. Using the Google 'street view' of the maps feature, you can see not only what the home that you're considering looks like but you can also see the neighbor's homes too. You can 'virtually' drive through the neighborhood to see what the entire block looks like. There are also a lot of smart phone apps like “GreatSchools” for iPhone and Localiscious for android users that will give you community, school, crime stats, etc. in a mobile format. Additionally, your real estate agent might subscribe to services like Top Producer's “Market Snapshot and Community Reports” and Market Leader's “Market Insider” that provide customizable and very dynamic community and neighborhood information and market reports. Be sure to ask about these tools when choosing an agent to work with. Agents who spend money on and provide tech tools for their clients are a big advantage to a home buyer especially if you don't live in the area that you're buying in.
It's difficult to say what's more important when searching for a home: the home itself or the community that you're buying with the home. My opinion is that they are both equally important to your satisfaction and happiness as home buyers, but become even more important, in future, if you sell your home. There's a reason the answer to: "What's the most important thing in real estate?" always comes back: "Location, location, location!"