Can’t Settle on a Neighborhood?
Can’t Settle on a Neighborhood? Here are five considerations that should help narrow it down.
It’s not uncommon for Houston-area homebuyers to have trouble focusing their search. With the Houston metropolitan area now larger than the state of New Jersey, narrowing down your options to a manageable number of neighborhoods is a crucial first step. Neglecting it can lead to choice paralysis, in which buyers make unwise snap decisions, substitute others’ opinions for their own, or put off a necessary move indefinitely.
Fortunately, this is a situation where a little bit of homework can go a long way!
First, try focusing your search with this commute time widget. How long are you willing to spend driving to work, schools, or frequently visited businesses like grocery stores? Houston’s population is expected to surpass Chicago’s by 2025, and the city infrastructure and commute times are changing quickly to reflect the new population density.
For current Houstonians looking at a move, the first step in calculating an acceptable commute time is to be honest with yourself about your current commute and all the places you currently go. An increase of 15 minutes in work commute may be neutral, for example, if the move reduces the commute to your children’s schools by an equivalent amount.
For buyers new to Houston, on the other hand, commute time calculations can provide quite a reality check. For example, new Houstonians may be shocked to learn that the suburbs of Katy and The Woodlands are as far away from each other as Providence, Rhode Island and Boston, Massachusetts… with a travel time to match!
Consider schools. Good school districts are not only great for property values; they can save families years of preschool worry and frustration, as well as tens of thousands of dollars each year in school tuition. If commute times make award-winning suburban school districts unappealing, there are excellent schools centrally located within HISD. Transfers from lackluster neighborhood schools are always an option, though competition for spots at the most desirable magnet and Vanguard campuses can be brutal. The city and suburbs also have many excellent private schools that may be worth a look, but don’t forget to do a quick calculation of those school commutes and the impact of tuition on your housing budget!
Be realistic about your budget and your standards. For the most part, homes listed by professionals in the Houston metro market are priced as close as possible to their projected selling price. In a stable or rising market like the current one, the most desirable properties will often sell above list price with multiple offers. In these market conditions, picky buyers (which includes almost everyone) should not be considering neighborhoods they could only afford with hypothetical substantial price concessions. You might eventually find a fabled “smoking hot deal,” but it’s likely to be a deal for a reason (perhaps including multiple costly defects). It’s best to be realistic and eliminate neighborhoods you love that are just priced too high.
Consider zoning (or lack thereof). How comfortable would you be with a high-rise condo building looming over your luxury single family home? Or a gas station’s bright lights beaming through your bedroom window at night? How about some industrial warehouses one block away from your Craftsman bungalow? Houston is notorious for its lax zoning culture, although it does have a patchwork quilt of land-use regulations that sometimes serve the same purpose as traditional zoning.
It’s important to note that the absence of eyesores now is no guarantee there won’t be surprises later – just ask the angry homeowners in Southampton. If the wild west of Houston land use is not your cup of tea, we do have some very fine examples of traditionally zoned villages or towns. Some of these are available right in the middle of Houston if your budget allows. If not, a mid-century deed restricted community or the suburbs will likely be your best bet.
Finally, how much density is comfortable for you? If you’re longing for a centrally located high-rise condo, you’re probably not struggling to narrow your search; you likely already know you’ll be choosing between Downtown, River Oaks, the Galleria, or the Medical Center. If you’re thinking of anything from a townhome to a single-family home with a small yard, however, there’s no substitute for spending time in the various candidate neighborhoods. If you’d like a neighborhood that’s reasonably walkable, like Midtown, Montrose, the Museum District, or the Heights, do some walking there and see how you feel. Investigate neighborhood crime statistics using an app like SpotCrime. Walk the sidewalks at dusk, and eat dinner on restaurant terraces. If you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, you may want to adjust your neighborhood candidate list accordingly.
Keep in mind that Houston is still very much a car city, though our rail and bus systems are getting better all the time. And if your dream neighborhood turns out to be a suburb, there’s always the Park and Ride.
Taken together, these factors should help narrow your location candidates down to a list of three or fewer “finalist” neighborhoods. If all things are equal among these options, and you’re willing to let the homes on the market help you make the final decision, that’s a great time to call your Realtor and start serious showings.
If you have a strong suspicion that you’ll be happiest focusing your search on just one area that’s the best fit for you or your family, then I’d suggest taking several weekends to try each of your finalist neighborhoods on for size. Wake up early on a Saturday morning and do a trial run of the life you’d live if that neighborhood were your home: pick up a latte at a coffee shop, take a walk in a park, rent kayaks and hit the water, sample the local shopping and restaurant scene, or check out the grocery shopping options… whatever you’d do if you lived there. Try it all out!
By the end of your experiment, one neighborhood will very likely emerge as the winner. Then, you can focus on working with your Realtor to identify the right home for you in your newfound neighborhood paradise.