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The neighborhood matters

When you ask a real estate agent the three most important things about any home, she's likely to reply, "Location, location, location." Before you buy a new home, you should carefully check out the neighborhood to which you plan to move. County records, Facebook, Google, Google Earth and other online resources can all be friends that help you avoid a big mistake.

Questions to ask

A candidate home's plot and view make up a big part of the appeal of its location. But its neighborhood can be at least as important.

Are the schools good? Is quality healthcare easily accessible? How long will my commute be? Is crime low, and does the guy next door have a recent arrest for dealing crack from home? Is there a good supermarket close by? How far is the nearest mall? Are there plans to build a highway or airport runway at the end of the back yard?

You need to know the answers to these and other questions.

Walk before web

No matter how good your online search skills are, nothing beats exploring the streets around your prospective home on foot. You'll pick up on details you'd never notice in a car or on Google Street View. And, of course, you can hear and smell things.

Try to visit at different times of day. Your new neighbor's kid might get his drum kit out only during evenings or at weekends. And there might have been a reason the student house on the other side was so quiet on the morning of the open house: Its residents were too hungover to get up after one of their frequent all-night parties.

Walking around also gives you a chance to pick your new neighbors' brains about what it's like to live on your next street. Stop to chat, make friends, ask questions and get the skinny.

The worldwide web is your oyster

Google Maps might be your natural online starting point. Type in the address of your prospective home, and then click on "Nearby."

You can then choose which types of place you want to find: restaurants, schools, stores, hospitals, gyms and so on. If the type of establishment you want to find isn't on the list presented, type it into the search box, for example, "hospital" or "school."

By clicking "Directions," you will be presented with routes, distances and approximate travel times. If available, you can choose from driving, walking and public transit.

Schools

You can use the school locator page on a U.S. Department of Education website to find a local map showing all the public schools in an area. Click on "school profile" for more details of each.

To find the rankings and ratings of public schools in a district, try PSK12.com.

Healthcare

Consumer Reports has a web tool that provides a list of the hospitals in your city, county or state with rankings and ratings. It also provides information on each facility's record in certain limited performance categories.

You can find out more about local family doctors (primary care doctors) through patient reviews on Yelp and Angie's List. However, those aren't always fair or helpful. Consumer Reports has a useful article on "How to Find a Good Doctor."

Crime

Type your zip code into the CrimeReports website to find recent incidents in that area. You'll be presented with a map showing pins, which, when clicked, provide more details. And you can refine your search to find older criminal activity.

The home

Other sources that can prove worthwhile information are the local courthouse and the offices of the county or city. These can usually provide records on a home going back at least 20 years, including deeds and encumbrances, such as mortgages or other charges.

You can often access these records online. But it's worth remembering it can take a while to post information to those websites. So don't rely on their being completely up to date. If you have the time and the proximity, a visit can be better.

Other resources

For information about the demographics of the area, consult the 2010 U.S. Census through its website.  You can drill down through your state to your census division. And that will give you a breakdown of the local population by age, sex, race, ethnicity and housing status.

Don't forget to check out local newspapers to get a feel for the place. That can give you real insights into what's on and what residents are concerned about.

Be realistic

Don't expect any neighborhood to be perfect. As you know all too well, buying a home is all about trading off things on your wish list.

And that applies to streets and areas, as well as homes. So, have realistic expectation when you check out the neighborhood.

Regardless of the neighborhood you choose, your home will be more attractive if you pay less to finance it. And that's possible with today's low mortgage rates. Just contact a Wallick & Volk Mortgage Professional to find the best loan product and best rate for your new home. www.wvmb.com