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Cover story: Community tour on buyers’ to-do list

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You've found the ideal house and are giddy with excitement. It has a front porch and lots of closets, a window in the kitchen and a private backyard. You're ready to sign the contract.

But have you taken a walk around the neighborhood? Is it quiet? Are there toys on the lawns nearby, hinting of playmates for your children? Is the school within walking distance? Is there a radio tower looming overhead, which could mean spotty reception on your favorite station? How far is the house off the main thoroughfare -- close enough to sustain a constant traffic hum? Have the neighbors been there for a long time, or is this a community in flux?

These are some of the questions prospective homeowners would be wise to consider before making a commitment.

"If you're wondering about the neighborhood, drive by at 9 on a Friday night and see what you see," said Reid Butterfield with Re/Max Realty Services in Maryland.

During daytime, walk the streets because you will notice much more on foot.

"You need to go around and take a look," said Jeanne N. Livingston, an associate broker with Long & Foster's Extraordinary Properties Division in the District.

You want to get a feel for the community, get a sense of the atmosphere and check out the tidiness of homes and yards.

"We're not supposed to say what's considered a 'good' or 'bad' neighborhood. That's 'steering' and ethically and technically, it's illegal to steer a party toward or away from a certain location," said Lee Braun, with the Poole/Braun Team in Long & Foster's Alexandria office.

Good agents are careful not to offer personal opinions, she said.

"But I will give my buyers the tools they need, such as websites that provide demographic statistics and the address of the local police station, so they can find out themselves," Ms. Braun said.

"We tell people that in this day and age, they should use the Internet to do their own research."

Schools always top the list of buyers' inquiries, said John Burgess, a broker with Realty Executives Premier in Burtonsville, and lots of information about local education is available online. School locations, principals' names, test scores and Parent-Teacher Association contacts all are readily available.

Police departments provide local crime statistics on request and the commonly called Megan's Law requires a public listing of registered sex offenders and their residence, which typically can be found online.

In the transportation realm, Mr. Burgess encourages buyers to do trial runs from their prospective new house to their most common destinations, including workplace, shopping and school.

"I suggest to buyers alternate travel paths that are efficient and optimal for the time of day and recommend they experiment with them," he said.

"I suggest that buyers Google the address and the neighborhood to see what comes up. If it's a condo they're considering, I encourage them to Google it by name," said Juliet Zucker, with Long & Foster in the District. "If you're in the condo elevator, ask the people riding with you if they like living in the neighborhood."

Prospective buyers also should check out the homeowners association rules and regulations, Mr. Burgess said.

"Some don't let you put up a fence or plant certain vegetation or allow commercial vehicles parking on the communal property, which may be a hindrance if you run a business, even a small one, out of your home," he said.

Ms. Braun said she encourages clients to "come back without your agent, knock on doors and talk to people. Tell them you're thinking of making an offer and ask what they think of the neighborhood. Some people won't want to talk, but some will, and they'll be pretty honest."

You might learn there is an annual parade every year on July 4th or a neighborhoodwide picnic on Memorial Day weekend. Maybe you'll hear that cars are broken into regularly. If nothing else, you'll meet the neighbors and get a sense of the community.

Mr. Burgess said he advises clients to be certain they will have the convenience they seek to pick up necessities for everyday living, and he points out how close a prospective house is from nearby shopping centers.

Entertainment also is important for many buyers, and he said he points out local cinemas, cafes and public gathering spots.

Outdoor recreation is a quality-of-life consideration, so nearby parks with woodland trees and grassy knolls adorned with benches are welcome locales agents happily point out to clients.

Places of worship can be problematic in terms of identifying a particular denomination.

"We cannot say what religious affiliation is predominant in a neighborhood, but we can suggest that you do a little research to find out yourself," Mr. Burgess said.

Everyone has a different comfort level for the community they want to live in and the atmosphere that suits their temperament and lifestyle, Ms. Zucker said.

"You really must find it for yourself and decide what's best for your family, she said. "I advise people to try to get to know the neighborhood even before they find a house," she said. "Spend time there. Walk it and drive it during the day and at nighttime. Go to the shops, dine in the restaurants, stroll through the park."

See how you feel when you're out and about and if the setting is in sync with your sense of being and style.

Said Mr. Burgess: "Really try to keep an open mind."

No neighborhood is perfect, he said, but once you move in and get acquainted with the people and amenities in your new locale, you'll likely think it is the best place you ever lived.

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