How to Test-Drive a Neighborhood Before You Buy the House
By Tim McMullen
Would you buy a car without giving it a test drive? Probably not. A test drive helps you understand what it would really be like to own, live with, and use a car, giving you the opportunity to notice subtle details that you can experience only by taking it for a spin. After all, this is a sizable investment.
And buying a home is an even bigger commitment. After all, you’re not just buying the property itself, but a new life in terms of your community, your commute, the local restaurants, you name it.
As a real estate agent in San Francisco, I’ve seen countless clients stress over whether or not to purchase a property. In my mind, their anxiety is rooted in the unknown. What if it’s dangerous at night? What if none of my friends wants to visit me here? What if I find out something about the neighborhood that I’ll hate when it’s too late to do anything about it?
The good news is, moving to a new place doesn’t need to be a completely blind leap of faith. This is why I always encourage my clients to take the neighborhood for a little test drive first. Here’s how.
Live like a local
The first step of this process is to spend some time in the area—ideally by booking an Airbnb listing as close as possible to the property. Sure, this isn’t free, but the peace of mind this can give you about an area is worth the investment.
Try to book for at least three days, preferably Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. In doing so, you’ll be able to see what the neighborhood is like on both weekdays and weekends.
From there, spend some time exploring the neighborhood during the morning, afternoon, and evening to gauge noise levels and safety in the area.
To get unfiltered, real-time crime updates on your area, check out the Citizen app, which provides crowdsourced crime reports.
One former client of mine, Gray Hoffman, decided to take my advice and test-drive San Francisco’s Polk Street.
“We had previously visited the property several times during weekday afternoons. On paper, we felt it could make a great home and solid investment,” he recalls. “We booked a studio apartment nearby for a weekend and quickly realized that the raucous weekend partygoers, while fun at first, would probably become disruptive.”
Hoffman didn’t buy the house. He also found the experience of test driving so insightful, he now recommends it to friends and clients.
Run through your daily routine—and commute
In addition to noise and crime levels in the area, you’ll want to get a sense of your daily commute to and from work, shopping routine for groceries, and other errands. Make sure to use the mode of transportation you’ll be using, whether that’s a car, bike, bus, or otherwise.
Another former client of mine, Maddie West, thinks test-driving your commute is particularly important if you’re commuting between suburbs and city.
“San Francisco is an awesome city, but some parts can definitely be sketchy,” West says. “I often leave work late at night and, as a woman, there are definitely certain public transport stops I’d prefer to not use. It’s better to learn these kinds of things sooner rather than later.”
Sample the nightlife
Happy hours and weekend festivities are a common part of building a social life. As such, you should spend at least one night going out where you coordinate with friends to grab dinner or even head out bar hopping. Your goal should be to see as many venues as you possibly can, to get a sense of the ambiance and demographics of the local nightlife and social scene.
My friend Elen Gales, for instance, has lived in cities as diverse as Manila, Jakarta, Kathmandu, Colombo, Sacramento, and San Francisco. As such, she’s my resident expert on how to size up and quickly integrate into a city’s social scene.
“You should go out a few times with several different groups of friends—it’s particularly helpful if they have different perspectives and lifestyles from each other,” she says. “It’s important to get unfiltered feedback from your friends about the area—after all, they’ll be visiting you there!”
Make sure to make it clear to your friends that you haven’t decided whether you’ll buy just yet, since, as Gales adds, “Your friends will be more comfortable giving you their honest opinions if they know that you haven’t made a commitment on the place yet. And the perspectives you’ll gain will be valuable.”