18 Questions to Ask When Moving to a New City
Even if you're moving somewhere with a low cost of living, relocating can be a stressful, daunting process. Making it even more nerve-wracking: Trying to pick the right spot to set down roots in your new city. Of course you need something affordable, but there are plenty of intangibles that come with choosing a new neighborhood. Here are 18 questions you should ask when scoping out that next house or apartment in another city.
Renting short term allows you to get to know your surroundings and avoid buying in the wrong spot. "Buying requires more of an upfront investment with the down payment and closing costs, so if it's a short-term move you'll likely lose money compared to renting a place," says Chris Taylor, managing director of sales and leasing with Advantage Real Estate in Boston. "If you think you'll move again within three to five years, renting may be a better alternative to buying. If it's longer than that, buying may give you a chance to make some return on your investment."
Alternatively, that new city might become home for longer than you think. "Oftentimes people want to purchase and may think they will only live in the property for three to five years, and then end up living there for much longer, sometimes 10 to 15 years," cautions Gina Ko, an agent with Triplemint, a real-estate brokerage in New York City. That means thinking about the next stage of life: If you plan to have kids, how are the schools? If you're a long-time professional, are there enough recreational and cultural diversions for when you retire?
The best way to get a feel for a new place is to act like you already live there. Taylor says one goldmine of information, even for those without kids, is local moms' groups on Facebook. "These groups give you the scoop on everything in the neighborhood, from local events to recommendations for plumbers to sales at the grocery store to the newest restaurant opening. These members of the community are the most in-the-know and a skim of the latest forum chatter is a great way for you to get a feel of what the neighborhood is really like."
How easily you'll make friends in a new place is hard to quantify. But one factor that's easier to assess is whether the area is popular with transplants, or whether people tend to spend their lives there -- which could make it harder to find new buddies. Ali Wenzke, who blogs at The Art of Happy Moving, recommends finding friends even before you move. "It's so helpful to start networking before you arrive, although many of us don't think about this step until after we've unpacked our last box. Ask family, Facebook friends, your Realtor or your new employer to connect you with someone in your new town. It's much easier to go from one friend to two than it is to go from zero to one friend."
While friendly, respectful neighbors are at the top of everyone's list, consider whether you want the potential to form more close-knit relationships. "When my husband and I relocated to Knoxville, we chose the house more so than the neighborhood. After we moved in, we realized that the neighborhood kids were teenagers finishing up their college applications. Our kids were still in diapers," Wenzke says. "Our lives didn't quite match up, so weekend socializing with the neighbors wasn't really an option. Look around the neighborhood and find out if your neighbor's life stage is similar to yours."
Though some people crave the hum of the city, if you're aiming for quiet, make sure you'll get it. "If you are very sensitive to noise, talk to local residents or try to stay in the neighborhood at least one weekend before moving," says Shane Lee of RentHop.com. "I moved to NoHo, in Manhattan, three years ago, thinking that this neighborhood has everything a 20-something wants. What I did not expect is noise. In NoHo, it is very common to see drunk people screaming and shouting on the streets at 4 a.m., even on a weekday. I had to wear earplugs when I slept."
Eyeing a tidy new neighborhood with gorgeous landscaping and a pool? Particularly in planned communities, there may be a homeowners association (HOA) enforcing rules and collecting dues. If so, know what you'll owe -- it could be as much as $200 to $400 a month -- and ask what requirements exist for the appearance and upkeep of your home. You may have to use approved exterior paint colors, keep flower beds weeded at all times, and take your Christmas decorations down lickety-split. If you prefer not to follow someone else's rules for your own home, skip the HOA.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 53 million people – 17% of the U.S. population – live within 3 miles of a highly contaminated Superfund site, searchable on the EPA website. The bright side, according to Tory Keith, president of Board and Park Property Solutions in Natick, Mass., is that buyers will know the potential hazards. "While their presence can be a concern to potential buyers, providing them with some of the history and information available can in some cases alleviate the worries, since the cleanups of these sites are so well-monitored, compared with other environmental hazards that are often present."
Hop on Google maps and see how long it will take to get from Point A to Point B – simple, right? Not really, experts warn. "Be sure to get estimations for rush hours -- perhaps you would be better off using the public transportation rather than be stuck in traffic all day," says Julie Gurner, a real-estate analyst with FitSmallBusiness.com. If you can, experience the commute first-hand, advises Taylor. "For example, when looking around Boston, it's easy to think a place is great because it's close to the MBTA Green Line, which is a straight shot to your office downtown. But residents will tell you they curse the Green Line because of its no-reason stops and extreme overcrowding."
Anyone who's used to being able to walk to a coffee shop or the grocery store might find living in a spread-out, car-oriented town without sidewalks downright soul-crushing. "If you can't change your drive time to work, maybe you can change how long it takes you to get to the grocery or to the park by picking a neighborhood with a high walk score," Wenzke advises. A walk score closer to 100 indicates that you can do most of your daily errands on foot; if it's closer to zero, you'll be hopping in and out of the car.
"Living in a pre-war building in New York City might be stunning, but with a newborn, the fourth-floor walk-up might get a bit tiring. Check the location of dog parks and playgrounds and be sure to consider amenities that might make your life easier," advises Gurner. Curious if there are potential playmates in the area? Look around neighbors' yards for clues. "Look for neighborhoods with a lot of swing sets, outdoor playsets, open garage doors with toys and kids in the yards, and groups of parents grilling in the backyard," advises Justin Lavelle, chief communications officer for BeenVerified.com.
"If you have kids who want to play in your yard, a dog to walk, or like to run, bike, or walk yourself, it should matter whether a heavy volume of cars speeds past your new home," warns Emily Patterson, a safety expert with ASecureLife.com. "Is it a busy through-street, or does the neighborhood have a single entrance and exit? Are there speed bumps and stop signs to regulate traffic speed and flow?" Ask residents whether they have concerns, particularly as traffic apps continue to send more drivers through residential neighborhoods.
Though this question is likely to be foremost on parents' minds, what some may not realize is that your realtor is prohibited by law from giving you their opinions on school quality. Though it's fairly easy to look up state rankings, Taylor recommends doing some digging beyond any "official" information, which may not give the whole picture. He recommends talking to parents with kids in the local school system, whether in person or online. "You would likely hear complaints of overcrowding within one of those forums, which is something you wouldn't be able to evaluate by looking just at the state rankings," he says.
You can figure out the property taxes on a house fairly easily, but there's always a risk they can zoom up fast. "Due to all the services property taxes pay for, they can increase and fluctuate pretty quickly," says Von Gipson, a Dallas-area realtor. "When there's a need for something significant like a new school or stadium, wider roads, or larger first-responder force and the city pays for it, then the taxes are subject to go up," he cautions. "This will impact your mortgage payment and could be the difference in a home being affordable today and out of your payment range in a couple of years. The history of a city, population growth, and school ratings are some really good indicators of whether you can expect an increase in taxes."
Though it's readily apparent whether your prospective neighborhood borders a busy commercial corridor, remember to think about the future, warns Gipson. "Rezoning is when the original boundary lines get rearranged to make way for things like changes in roads, structures, or ordinances. They typically happen every three to five years based on the area; if an area is growing rapidly, every year is very likely. This means, if an area seems to be great today, if it's up for some change, it could change which school district your child attends, the direction you go to work, and whether or not that empty space just outside your neighborhood becomes a liquor store."
For some, a big change in climate can mean a big change in attitude. Going from a temperate climate to one filled with extremes can be jarring at best. If you have no choice, Wenzke recommends doing your best to embrace it and make it part of your adventure. "I'm a Floridian living in Chicago. We moved to the Chicago area in January, and I celebrated my birthday in a blizzard. Instead of complaining about it (which I allow myself to do on occasion), I took up adult ice skating lessons, bought some fashionable boots and learned the importance of layers," she says.
For nature lovers, nearby parks and recreational opportunities may be at the top of the list, but Wenzke thinks this issue should be on everyone's radar. "Even if you don't consider yourself an outdoorsy person, access to nature is critical to your happiness," she says. "Before you put a deposit down on that new apartment, find out if there are any outdoor spaces nearby where you could picnic or take a book. Do you have access to a balcony for your plants or is there a communal garden in the area? Are there mature trees in the neighborhood or are you surrounded by concrete? Even small outdoor courtyards can do a lot to improve your happiness after a long day at work."
As with school district quality, crime is something your realtor has to be tight-lipped about by law. While you can (and should) look up crime data online, spending time in your prospective neighborhood is one of the best ways to figure out whether you feel safe there. But don't limit that time to daytime only, advises Patterson. "Visit your new neighborhood at all times of the day -- morning, noon, night. What looks like the perfect home and street may have a different vibe in daylight versus after dark, and you can often get a sense of this just driving around."