What to Research Before Buying or Renting a Home

Icons represent research to do when looking for a home
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While the golden rule of real estate -- "location, location, location" -- may seem a bit shop-worn, it's an element that bears special consideration when looking for a home to buy or rent. However, the information age has broadened the parameters of what to look for in a home beyond a good location.

Military families are often limited in their home searches to areas that are close to their duty station, which can make finding the perfect area a bit more challenging. This is where we turn to the vast amount of information that is available online. Let's cover some of the resources available to you for researching your next home.

Evaluating Schools

For many military parents, their first consideration when looking for a home is the school district. Some even take what they call "school hunting leave," as it's more important to find a school that fits their kids' needs before deciding on the home or neighborhood they like. Whether remotely or in person, learning about each school and possibly speaking with administrators is important as school choice is a substantial decision.

Several online school review sites provide parental reviews on teacher quality, principal leadership and parental involvement, as well as test scores, programs and culture. Test scores are based on the most recent standardized test scores, which factor into the rating system, but parental reviews also have an effect on the overall rating. Parental reviews can provide insight into the overall school culture or specific teachers, but remember that these reviews are based on individual experiences, which may differ from yours and your children's. Start off with GreatSchools and SchoolDigger for free information on schools where you're headed.

Internet and Cable Providers

Some areas are serviced by only one provider, limiting your choices for internet and cable service, which you'll want to know ahead of time. Allconnect provides you with a list of cable and internet companies that service your area and available packages through a free, easy ZIP code search. They offer the opportunity to set up your services as well, or you can simply use it as a way to compare providers and costs.

Homeowners Associations

Outside of the fees, it's important to understand how the covenants and conditions involved with living in a neighborhood that has a homeowners association can affect you as a homeowner or a renter.

If you're using a real-estate agent to find a home, they can provide you with specifics about the fees and restrictions.. It may also be worthwhile, though, to do an online search, using phrases that include the development's name and "HOA" or "Homeowners Association" to see whether the residents of the development have shared their personal insights. Searching for a specific HOA may also turn up a community website that will shed light on community events, social networking, and rules and regulations.

As a renter, you may not be responsible for the monthly HOA fees; however, you will be expected to follow the covenants and conditions of the neighborhood.

Future Developments and Improvements

The documentation you're presented when buying a home is overwhelming, to say the least. Buried somewhere in the mess are disclosures, if any, about future developments or improvements that may impact your residence. While the dates of proposed work may seem far off in the future, it's crucial to take these plans under careful consideration.

For instance, there may be plans for future residential or commercial developments and/or road extensions. You may believe that the proposed changes won't affect you, but these sorts of changes can take years to accomplish and may have an effect on school district boundaries and traffic patterns, which can, in turn, affect your home value and children's education.

The easiest way to access this information is to ask your agent or the current homeowner. You may also want to contact the county's Planning and Zoning Department.

Flood Zones

Flooding does not discriminate, so whether you are a homeowner or a renter, this is an aspect of the home location that's important to research. For homeowners, being in a flood zone could result in having to carry flood insurance, which adds to the expense of home ownership.
For renters, your personal property is not covered under the homeowner's policy, so rental insurance is worth considering. Remember that flood insurance is in addition to the regular homeowners or renters policy.

If you're trying to determine whether a home is in a flood hazard area, take a look at the flood maps and risk assessments on the FEMA website.

Airport Zones

Listen and look up! Whether you're living near a military air base or airport, you may want to be aware of that going into the deal. The sound of aircraft may not seem obtrusive during your walkthrough of the home, but depending on flight restrictions, this is a factor that may keep you up at night or interfere with your waking hours. Noise Quest, which was developed by the Federal Aviation Administration, provides guidance about the impact of nearby aircraft noise and maps for prospective home buyers.

Crime Rates

Homeowners and renters alike want to believe that crime doesn't happen in their neighborhood, but of course, crime is everywhere. Researching the types of reported crimes in your area may help you sleep better at night. SpotCrime has a map feature that will display the type, location, date and time of all reported crimes near the entered ZIP code or address.

Drug Labs

"Breaking Bad" fans will understand the consequences of discovering a home was used as a meth lab, but for those of you who prefer less violent television shows, know that living in a home where drugs used to be manufactured can have long-term health effects. The Drug Enforcement Administration registry map of clandestine drug labs will afford you the opportunity to determine whether a particular address was flagged by law enforcement as either a drug lab or dump site. Doing an online search of the property address may provide additional details as well.

Sexual Offenders

Burying your head in the sand will not diminish the potential risk posed to you or your family, so know about the individuals in your neighborhood who may be registered sex offenders. Your state may provide its own online registry of sex offenders, or you can check an address on the U.S. Department of Justice's Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website.

Stay Focused

Most home searches begin with the desired number of bedrooms or bathrooms, leading us to fall in love with the home's curb appeal or custom kitchen, but sometimes beauty really is skin deep. Before the love pheromones take over, grab your phone and research your new home just like you would a prospective date. You may just find out that this home is not the one for you.

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