Location, Location, Location

When my husband and I were ready to buy our first home, we set our sights on Ann Arbor, Michigan. We were displaced New Yorkers and yearned for an urban lifestyle — or so we thought.

We went on house tour after house tour but nothing clicked for us. In frustration, one night we decided to make a list of what we wanted and didn’t want in a home. The “want” list shocked us both. Our priorities were a garage and a backyard. No wonder none of those loft apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows (but no parking or outdoor space) didn’t appeal to us. We were looking in the wrong neighborhood.

We realized that the place we enjoyed spending our weekends was not the place we wanted to crash after a long, hard day at work. Our first home wound up being in a quiet suburb of Detroit with a view of Lake Erie from the front porch.

In real estate, location is everything. And that location must be the right fit for your finances and your lifestyle. Do you want to live on a busy street or a quiet cul-de-sac? Do you care how long your commute is? Is the school district important to you? What about the tax rate? And considering that you probably won’t get everything you want, what factors are you willing to compromise on? In our case, we were willing to settle for a smaller home in a community with a great school district.

These are just a few of the questions you need to ask yourself as you try to figure out where to put down roots:

Which Life Stage Are You In?

“The most important factor is what stage you’re in,” says Wendy Froehlich, vice president of marketing for Homes.com. “If you have kids, you might be thinking about schools. If you have a new job, you might be thinking about the commute. Do you want the suburbs or a city feel?”

If you’re a parent (or hope to become one), the quality of local schools is going to be important. Websites such as GreatSchools.org can help you find out what fellow parents say about the area schools as well as how well they do in individual state rankings and assessments. But you might also be looking for amenities like parks and nearby services (pharmacies, pediatricians, daycare centers). If you’re not ready for — or don’t plan to have — a family, your proximity to work might be important. And if you travel a lot for work, you might prefer a condominium community that takes care of shoveling snow and pulling weeds over a home that requires a lot of maintenance. If you’re planning to retire soon, being within walking distance of shopping and entertainment — and doctors and other services — might matter. Figure out what factors are most important to you not in a house, but in what you see when you step outside its doors.

How Long Do You Want to Commute?

Sometimes your ideal home is located a long distance from where you work. The average American’s commute time is about 25 minutes, according to U.S. Census, and 8 percent of Americans spend more than an hour getting to work. Be realistic about what a long commute would mean for your lifestyle and your pocketbook, considering the cost of gas, tolls and wear-and-tear on your vehicle. Homes.com offers a “commute calculator” on all its listings to give you a sense of how much time you’ll be committing to getting to and from work.

What “Feel” Are You Looking For?

Imagine your ideal neighborhood. Do you want your neighbors close by or do you want more privacy? Do you want a subdivision with curved roads where homes all look similar or do you prefer a unique urban design? What amenities are most important to have close by? Are there neighborhoods you’ve visited that you really liked? What about them did you like most?

Think “We” not “Me”

Think of your ideal neighborhood, and then make a wan’t/don’t want list. But do it with your spouse. You might be surprised by how similar – or different – your visions are. “My husband and I, when we moved from Atlanta to Virginia, we loved heavily wooded environments,” says Froehlich. “We wanted a nice neighborhood feel, a place where it’s easy to bike with your kids…it’s important to make that list of what’s important to each of you.”

How Much Green do You Need?

How important are green spaces to you? Do you dream of cultivating flowerbeds in your front yard? Do you love mowing in the summer and raking leaves in the fall? Or does the mere thought of that amount of green-thumbery exhaust you? If so, maybe being close to a park with lots of running paths and playgrounds will meet your needs. If seeing “green” is something you only expect on vacation, maybe inner-city life is your speed.

How Close is Your Family?

If you’re used to grandma picking up the kids from school for you and being able to drop them off at your sister’s when you have a doctor’s appointment, moving to a neighborhood further away, even one that’s just a half-hour drive, can seriously change your qualify of life. Or, if you have an aging parent who needs some extra attention, being nearby can help make life less stressful.

What Can You Afford?

Your dream home might be in a neighborhood where home values bring tears to your eyes. Or the mortgage would be manageable but the taxes are outrageous. Either way, be honest with yourself about what you can realistically afford. A dream home in the perfect neighborhood can quickly turn into a financial burden if you take on more financial responsibility than is comfortable.

And once you’ve answered all your questions and figured out exactly what you want and need, get some expert help. “ A real estate professional can take all your factors – like how long you want your commute to be – and show you the neighborhoods that fit, and let you know the different taxes you’ll be paying depending on the county,” says Froehlich.

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