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Homebuyers: how to pick the best community

Are you making an out-of-state move and plan to buy a home in the new region as soon as possible? Yet are you puzzled on how to sift through alternative neighborhoods to find the best one for your family?

If so, you're not alone, says Merrill Ottwein, a real estate broker and former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org).

"The problem looms especially large for people moving to a major metro area who find the sheer number of possible neighborhoods daunting," says Ottwein, a real estate broker who works mainly with those who are relocating.

Neighborhoods vary widely in terms of key factors - some obvious and others harder to detect. That's why Ottwein urges those moving into a new area to spend a minimum of two full days assessing neighborhood options before embarking on any serious home shopping.

"It's a mistake to parachute in from another state and immediately start looking at specific houses. First target the right community," Ottwein says.

He urges you to take a systematic, step-by-step approach to neighborhood selection.

"It's a lot easier to screen houses - inside and out - by scanning Web sites. But so far, technology isn't good enough to find you the right neighborhood remotely," Ottwein says.

Ultimately, he says that to get a genuine feel for a neighborhood you need to drive to the community, get out of your car and talk to residents.

"They'll speak candidly and also give you their gripes, so long as they aren't trying to sell their house," Ottwein says.

Here are pointers for those planning a long-distance move:

- Put school quality at the top of your list.

Those who may relocate multiple times for job reasons, including private-sector executives and military people, should be especially attentive to neighborhood factors that could affect the future resale potential of their property, says Sid Davis, author of "A Survival Guide for Buying a Home."

First and foremost, he recommends you search for neighborhoods served by well-rated public schools.

"Houses in highly desirable school districts sell more quickly and for more money than like houses in a lesser school district nearby. The price differential can be more than 10 or 15 percent," Davis says.

As a preliminary school system screen, look for online data measuring such factors as test scores, median class size and per pupil expenditures. Later, you may wish to quiz neighbors on intangible measures, such as teacher responsiveness, and visit the schools.

"It doesn't matter if you don't have kids. School quality should be a crucial consideration for all buyers who want their property values to go up in the future," Davis says.

- Eliminate neighborhoods too far from your workplace.

In the past, more people were willing to accept a commute in excess of 30 minutes in exchange for the chance to live in a large house with a substantial yard. But high gas prices are one reason for the declining popularity of outlying communities.

"Ideally, you should screen out any neighborhood that forces you to spend too much time driving back and forth to work," Davis says.

- Seek out the opinions of others.

Those who are relocating for the second or third time realize the wisdom of contacting people who already live in the region where they're moving.

"Co-workers are a font of good information on the best neighborhoods around town. But because human beings will strongly defend their choice of where to live, don't take their opinions as gospel," Ottwein says.

He says real estate appraisers are another source of solid information on the most promising neighborhoods in a region.

"If you can't find their contact information online, ask local mortgage lenders for the names and phone numbers of appraisers they know," Ottwein says.

- Study neighborhoods on your short list.

Once you've narrowed the field to a few communities that seem appealing, it's time to scrutinize them more carefully. Even before taking the time to chat with neighborhood residents, Ottwein suggests you drive around and survey the surroundings.

"I wouldn't buy a house in any community within a half-mile of an interstate highway. There are always trucks on interstates, so the noise never dies down," he says,

"People enjoy communities that are walkable and have lots of small retail shops, as well as friendly restaurants," Ottwein says.

- Pick a real estate agent who knows the turf.

Eric Tyson, co-author of "Home Buying for Dummies," says those relocating to an area they don't know need to be sure to choose an agent who is familiar with property selection in that community.

"Sometimes agents from one part of a metro area will try to convince you they know the whole region, no matter how big. But that's usually impossible," he says.

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