There’s a lot to think about when buying a house, especially if it’s in a neighborhood you don’t know well. Even if the area looks nice, you never really know what happens after dark—or sometimes even in broad daylight.
That’s why it’s crucial to find out as much as you can about your potential new hood’s safety and crime rates: Is the neighborhood OK for kids, and can you park your car outside without risking a break-in?
Unfortunately it’s not as easy as simply asking your real estate agent for the 411. In fact, your real estate agent can’t help you here. Because of the Fair Housing Act, agents legally can’t answer your questions about neighborhood safety—which means you’ll have to do the detective work yourself.
We spoke with several real estate agents to pin down exactly what you can do to determine the safety of your new neighborhood, even without their help. Keep reading to find out.
Do online research—but know whom to trust
This first one seems obvious, but we’ll say it anyway—you should start your research online. And while you can (and should) explore what pops up after typing “crime rates in [your new neighborhood]” in Google, there are some search results we’d be more inclined to trust than others.
“Some of the best online tools folks can use are AreaVibes or City Datato determine the safety of a neighborhood,” says Ryan Fitzgerald, a Realtor® in Charlotte, NC and owner of Uphomes.
Another recommendation comes from Jo Ann Bauer, a Realtor based in Scottsdale, AZ.
“When home buyers ask me about neighborhood safety or crime, one of the online tools I recommend they explore is CommunityCrimeMap, which features crime mapping that includes information on times and locations,” she says.
Besides combing through these sites, you can also consult public records like police reports, which are often listed in local papers or online. If you’re specifically concerned about who might be living in the neighborhood, especially as it relates to the safety of your children, you can always do a quick search on the National Sex Offender Public Website as well.
Talk to the locals
With no shortage of online resources, it’s easy to forget about the power of local knowledge.
“One of the best ways to gauge a neighborhood’s safety is to speak with the neighbors themselves,” Fitzgerald says. “If you see folks outside, stop and ask them directly, ‘How’s the neighborhood?’”
You might even reach out to the neighborhood homeowners association, or do some snooping in online forums like Nextdoor, Reddit, or even Quora. These sites can provide a glimpse of what the locals are talking about, and help you catch on to anything (good or bad) that’s happening in the neighborhood.
Walk the neighborhood
Besides chatting up the neighbors, you should also plan on visiting your new neighborhood several times before deciding whether or not to live there.
“Whenever possible, I always suggest that my clients drive through a potential neighborhood at different times and days,” suggests real estate agent Vivian Cobb, of Vivian Cobb Realty. “Look at the cars the neighbors have, and how people are taking care of the houses. Neighborhoods with pride of ownership are usually a good bet.”
Walk several blocks and try to notice as much as you can on these trips. Do the houses have tall gates or security fences? Do the windows have bars? Is broken glass scattered on the pavement? It might mean car break-ins are frequent in the area. (Take it from someone who lived in San Francisco and had two car windows smashed in six months.)
Trust your instincts (seriously)
We know—this seems incredibly obvious as well, but it has to be said. Nothing (and we mean nothing) can replace a gut feeling. If you visit your new neighborhood and don’t feel safe enough to walk around alone, then all of the online crime maps in the world really don’t mean a thing.
Consider your lifestyle and how it fits into this new place: Will you feel safe on your morning run? Will you be comfortable letting your kids play outside, or parking your friend’s car on the street overnight?
“If you have any concerns about the neighborhood, don’t move there,” Fitzgerald says. “Trust your instincts. The last thing you want to do is buy a house you may not feel comfortable living in, especially if your family might not be comfortable either.”