After eight chapters you were wondering when we would get to this. So, why isn’t this the chapter I thought it would be? Well, back in 1950 you could get in your car and drive to the nearest developments in your little town within ten minutes. In the 21st century there is a lot more to consider.
Commute – My rough estimate for driving a car is now at $1.25 per mile. Forget what the IRS gives you. When were they ever fair? Don’t scoff; just add it all up. Oil changes, filters, tires, rotation, sale price minus got-rid-of-it price (on a lease, total cost divided by the number of miles driven), insurance, car washes and waxes, gasoline, sales tax on the car and everything thereafter. Need I go on? You want the bigger house in the outlying suburb but the round trip from home-to-work-to-home is 90 miles. Times $1.25 is $112.50 per day. A typical American works 250 days per year. The total comes to $28,125 per year for the privilege of spending two hours a day in your car. A 20-mile total commute would add up to $6,250. The $21,875 difference in some cities would take care of your ENTIRE house payment! Or pay for a private school for the kid. So carefully consider the cost before deciding on where to start shopping.
Story – I was commuting backward. We lived where all the jobs were and I was selling homes in the distant suburb where everyone lived. Unfortunately (with the same wear and tear on my car as everyone else) I had a problem one Saturday on my way to work. I stopped at the Mr. Goodwrench in Temecula, California and learned that the soonest they could look at my car was on Tuesday. There were so many people waiting for service on their commute-trashed cars that they had every bay in the garage filled and guys working on some double-stacked in the driveway.
Schools – Of all the criteria for picking a neighborhood, this one leaps off the page. Forget your own personal situation for a moment. You might be retired, or have decided not to have children, but most families do have them and the schools are critical. Women make 85% of the buying decisions on homes and schools for their children top the list of considerations. That used to be based on educational qualities, but unfortunately today safety and crime rates have become an important consideration. With an eye toward living in the perfect house regardless of the schools, say if you are home schooling or private schooling your children or they are grown and gone, you must be willing to sacrifice some future resale value if the schools associated with that area are not as good as others.
Some school districts overlap those of another city. For instance, if you live in Northeast Oceanside, California you will be in the Vista, California school district. Call the offices of the individual schools to find out if your target home is in their district.
Gangland – This problem is not going to go away with more than half of the families in America without a father-influence. Here is what to look for if you wish to avoid a gang area. Look for graffiti painted on fences and buildings. And look for cover up painting over old graffiti. The end house of a block is a good place to eyeball because the corner lot typically sports solid fences. Are there mismatched patches of paint on the fence or wall? Drive around the area in the evening. Are there groups of young men gathered and what do they do when you drive by? Do they seem to be overly interested in who is driving by or are they just self absorbed in whatever brought them together? Gangs are constantly looking for threats and the whole group will leave what they are doing aside to watch you drive by.
Story – In Fresno, California I was in a particularly tough (and unbeknown to me, gangcontrolled neighborhood) and a guy strolled over from his house two-doors down and asked what I was doing as I prepared my listing for sale. He seemed nice enough but I noticed that every car that drove by looked at him and either honked or waved. Late in the day he told me that a tree in the backyard was leaning over the neighbors house and it should be trimmed. He gave me the business card of someone he highly recommended and added that he would keep an eye on the house (add “if I used his guy for the tree trimming.”) The Seller didn’t want to go to that expense and months later we sold the now graffiti swathed home for $27,000.
Noise and other nuisances – Industrial areas, freeways, heavy multi-lane streets and airports can make enough noise to give you hearing problems late in life. Start with a house in the neighborhood you like and drive out from it in ever-larger circles. Go at least three miles out. Look at the map of the area and see if there are any large areas with no streets that could be industrial, future industrial or airport. Look for train tracks on the map and then go see them. Do airports runways line up with the property. Talk to people and ask these four questions.
- We are thinking about a home in this area. Why do you live here and what do you like about it?
- Which schools do the children here attend?
- I know it is a nice area, but if you had to stretch, what would you say could be improved?
- Anything else I should know?
- Thank you, you were very helpful.
They may ask you which home you are interested in. The best thing to tell them is that you haven’t decided on a specific home but follow that quickly with, “Why, do you know of one that is going on the market soon?” If they say yes, find out about it right away, maybe even go see the owner and knock on the door.
Story – When the wind blows consistently from one direction you can be tricked into thinking that a neighborhood smells delightful. And then that day comes when the wind turns and wwwhhhooooo boy, hello smellsville. In Corona, California I always went to the tract homes I was selling on the same freeway, same side streets, and the wind usually blows west to east. Once in awhile it comes off the desert and is called a Santa Ana wind blowing east to west. Now what I will tell you did not effect my homes, but one day I was in another area and smelled a big nasty one. Turns out there is a cheese factory. Now I love cheese, but this was beyond description. So circle out several miles from your new neighborhood and leave the windows in your car down.
Research Deeply as you will Live Deeply – Go back to the neighborhood, take a sandwich, roll down your windows and sit there from 9:00 pm to 11:00 pm on a Saturday night. Go there from 7:00 am to 9:00 am on a Monday morning. If anyone approaches you, just tell them you are considering buying a home in the area and then start asking them the questions above. They will leave you alone. Driveways tend to pair up, so park at the property line between two homes or on the non-entry side of a corner house. You can also walk around the area. Listen for airplanes, freeways, and the sounds of life. Smell the air and feel it, too. No, really, there are spots with cold wet low lying air that can be quite uncomfortable.
Story – On the checklist at the end of this book you will find a checklist with this question. “This is a nice neighborhood. Are their any neighbors that I should know about?” My client Chris and I were examining a foreclosure home for him to buy and we asked that question of a homeowner next door. He just nodded across the street without saying a word. This guy was home at 9:30 on a Monday morning, no cars in his driveway and none at the house next door. The woman from next door was literally being pushed around, then coddled, then pushed around, then hit on sensually, then ignored, then walked away from, then yelled at, then hugged. And SHE KEPT COMING BACK to him. I don’t know who was crazier, him or her. I advised Chris to avoid this neighborhood, or at least this block. A crazy neighbor can put a whole area on edge and make living there a misery instead of a joy.
Make the commute – Drive from the neighborhood to your work during several regular morning and evening rush hours. That will tell you a lot about the commute. Geography – If you know the area has a lot of water, streams, rivers, or springs, find out what the flood characteristics are for the neighborhood. You might want to buy on higher ground. Visiting often will tell you about wind and sun. Low lying areas in cities with less precipitation can be extra cold in winter.
Story - Where I grew up from age 9 to age 15 it was always really cold in the morning at Fallbrook High School. Many years later I found that someone donated the land to build the school in that location. At first I thought, “what a wonderful thing to do” then later I found out that this Avocado Capital of the World had just one low spot. You got it, right at the high school. No avocadoes would grow there and if they did, almost every year they would get a freeze and the fruit would drop off the trees. Try to find out the microclimate weather for your block. Ask the neighbors.
My Neighbors Homes – how do the other homes in the immediate and extended area look? Is this a nice neighborhood, but in a pocket, and surrounded by less desirable areas? Are the homes near me nicely maintained? It is notable that neighborhoods go through a cycle which can run twenty years or two-hundred years. It is almost invariably a downward spiral, which follows the general age of the homes. Losses of jobs, foreclosures of homes, changes to the quality of schools or re-districting can accelerate the process. Some cities have redevelopment areas that can reverse the trend. Baltimore, Maryland did a fabulous job of this in the 1980’s. But in general areas go down in value over the long run. Here is an odd fact. When homes lose value slowly, it is the quality of the house itself where the value is lost. When it loses value quickly, because of the economy or a war or a major change in the makeup of the locale, it is the value of the land that has taken the hit. The physical plant (the house and its services) has not changed in most cases. When times are bad, that is a golden opportunity to buy land.
(Note: if you are considering building a custom home on your own plot of land, I highly recommend that you read the book House by Tracy Kidder. Custom home building rarely makes you money, but it can lead to a fabulous home that almost suits your every need. This assumes that your marriage, your finances, and your sanity survive the process. Read the book.)
How Good Is This Area – one of the tests is to see how many homes are on the market. If you see many for sale signs, the area may not be that desirable. People who love their homes, and can still afford them, do not move. Low turnover is desirable. Remember that home buying, and therefore home selling, is seasonal. Just as there are fewer people looking for homes between the last two great American holidays (Halloween and Super Bowl Sunday) ((Just joking, but the time line is correct)) there are also less people putting their homes on the market. If you find a home on the market during Christmas week then you have a highly motivated Seller most likely.
Availability – the Echo Boomers’ (or Gen.Y) population is 73,000,000 Americans (born 1980 to 1996). Perhaps you are a part of this generation. If you read the history of our country from 1950 to 1990 you will see that the last big influence on the economy was the Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1963). They went to school (we built more schools), got their first car, rented an apartment, got married, bought their first home, had children, got their second car, moved to a nicer home. They dominated every aspect of the economy with their purchasing power. We needed to build more cars, apartments, more baby clothes, more furniture, and more houses. Their generation count was 83,000,000. That means the Echo Boomers will have nearly the same profound impact on the economy. Especially, homes because it is likely that the demand will not be able to keep up with supply for most of the time the Echo Boomers are buying their first homes. This creates an interesting problem. I am recommending that you do a lot of research and yet seem to be saying you will have to make a quick decision once a home comes on the market.
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