House Hunting Online: How to Tell If a Neighborhood Is Safe

The internet puts your dream house as close as your mobile phone. Just a few taps and you’ll find a ton of creative home-buying solutions right at your fingertips. But do you know how to tell if a neighborhood is safe?

Zillow is one of the most popular real estate sites. But after hunting and pecking through scores of listings, you wonder how you can get a better feel for the neighborhood you’re considering. After all, there’s more to finding a place to live than surfing the best home-buying apps.

Is it a good place to live? Are there sidewalks? Will your neighbors be decent people?

You know from experience that many houses look great in the photos. Pictures can’t tell you what it would be like to live in that dream house, though. Beyond Zillow, here are several sites and apps that can help you discover the right fit from the comfort of your living-room sofa.

How Does the Neighborhood Look?

How difficult is it to house-hunt in a city you’ve never been to? With today’s technology, not very. If your employer wants to know if you’d consider relocating to Indianapolis, you can take a virtual tour on Google Maps without ever leaving your office.

Using Street View, you can zoom in to neighborhoods and even to individual addresses. You’ll discover green spaces and see whether the streets have crosswalks. Would you like to fence the yard for greater security? The Area Calculator lets you measure the perimeter or even the distance between houses.

There’s also Google Earth, which lets you zoom out to the surrounding area. Where is the nearest fire station? Are you too close to the high school stadium for comfort? Are there busy streets or intersections nearby?

How Walkable Is the Neighborhood?

Not everyone can live among the wonderful, walkable streets of New York City or San Francisco. But if you’re like most people, even those located in the ’burbs, you’d prefer to live in a neighborhood with sidewalks and places to go on foot. It’s great to be able to leave your car in the garage for a short stroll to the grocery store, coffee shop and other amenities.

Using WalkScore, you simply enter the address and it returns a number. With a score of 90 or above, you can be assured that you won’t need your car for most of your daily errands. The app also provides a map of the surrounding area with the locations of nearby businesses.

Of course, you’ll want to know if you’re safe walking in the neighborhood, as well. With WalkScore’s Crime Grade, an A rating means you are less likely to be affected by crime at the address entered.

Can I Buy a Home That’s Not for Sale?

You spot the perfect home in the right neighborhood. The problem? The house doesn’t appear to be for sale. You can still check it out, though. According to the National Association of Realtors, 49 percent of people who sell their homes themselves do not actively market it. So if you see something you like, you have nothing to lose by doing a reverse address search. Use Spokeo to get the owner’s name, phone number, age, marital status — everything you need to make contact.

But before you pick up the phone, you’ll want to arm yourself with all of the information you’d need to be sure about making an offer — including if the neighborhood of your dream house is safe. It may not be possible to walk the streets, talk to the people who live there and check out the neighborhood hangouts. But here’s what you can do:

  • Will your Amazon packages disappear from your doorstep? Download Neighbors by Ring to get real-time security alerts for the area.
  • Are there sex offenders living close to the home? Visit the National Sex Offender Registry to check the vicinity. 
  • Do your next-door neighbors have a questionable past? Use Spokeo’s address search tools to see who lives in the neighborhood, and if they have any criminal records (additional fees apply for criminal record search).

The More You Know

Before you plunk down your hard-earned cash on a new place, it pays to thoroughly research what you’re getting into and who you’re living next to. Finding a place to live doesn’t have to be stressful. Armed with these tools and apps, you can have greater assurance that the surrounding area is as fantastic as the inside of your new place.

Pamela Fay has been a business writer for more than 15 years, with work appearing in publications such as “Legal Times.” She has also worked in the consulting arena since the 1990s, specializing in leadership development, human resources, change management and diversity. Fay holds an M.B.A. from Dartmouth College.