A critical part of the home-buying process is to THOROUGHLY research a neighborhood. This is the best way to ensure that you will actually feel at home in your new home. Additionally, since VA is legally a "Buyer Beware" state, remember that the burden is on the buyer to research everything prior to closing on the house. Your real estate agent can not make decisions for you about what you are okay with. Below I have some tips and links that are key to researching neighborhoods.
Although a hassle, the effort is well worth it. I highly recommend that buyers get up early one weekday and practice the commute from the new neighborhood to their workplace during rush hour. This is especially critical in this area because Northern VA is in the top 10 for worst traffic in the nation. Even if you already live in the area but are considering a new area, this research could drastically affect where you are willing to live.
If you are using public transportation, put your start and end points into The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Trip Planner for the fares and transfers that will be required.
For bus travel within Fairfax County, use the Fairfax Connector. The WMATA Trip Planner includes Fairfax Connector routes but you can find bus schedules and more detailed information on this website.
The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is great for commuters from Manassas or Woodbridge to get into Alexandria or DC during peak rush hours.
To learn more about the much anticipated Silver Line Metro, visit http://www.dullesmetro.com/ Phase I which includes 4 stops in Tysons and the Wiehle stop in Reston, opened on Saturday July 26, 2014! Phase 2 which includes Reston Town Center, Herndon Monroe Park and Ride, Dulles Airport, Sterling, and Ashburn, is projected to open in 2018.
Make sure to drive through the neighborhood in the evening when people are home and kids are playing, etc. When you are at the neighborhood, don't be shy! Speak with a few of the neighbors - introduce yourself as someone that is considering moving into the neighborhood and ask how long they've lived there, what they think of the neighborhood, if they feel safe walking around at night, etc. With some luck, you'll run into the chatty neighbor that will give you the history of the neighborhood as well as the house that is for sale!
Elementary school ranking correlates very strongly with quality of the neighborhood and therefore prices. If a neighborhood is considered to be a high quality neighborhood, it will be in higher demand which usually means that it will appreciate more quickly during booms and decrease more slowly during busts. It will also tend to sell more quickly when priced right! Of course, there are exceptions; sometimes a really nice neighborhood is part of a low-ranked elementary school district. Perhaps the children go to private schools or perhaps most people in the neighborhood don't have young children. It's up to you to research this if it is important to you!
1) The first step is to use the boundary website for the county to confirm the schools. Not all listings in the MLS identify the school district.
2) Research the schools - to gauge neighborhood quality, it usually makes sense to focus heavily on the elementary school ratings. The quick and easy (but sometimes inaccurate) site that some clients prefer is www.greatschools.net - this website gives you a rating for the school from 1 to 10. However, the best resource to get a complete picture is the VA Department of Education's Report Cards - there is a 20 page PDF for each school. This data is also the source of data for all other websites with school data - such as Great Schools. You can determine at a glance how the school compares to the county average (the county average is directly below every single score for the school).
For additional information, here are links for some Northern VA school systems:
Fairfax County Public Schools
Alexandria City Public Schools
Arlington County Public Schools
Falls Church City Public Schools
Loudoun County Public Schools
Prince William County Public Schools
Manassas City Public Schools
Manassas Park City Schools
One of the most overlooked research components by new buyers are the crime statistics for the neighborhood. Most police stations have a staff person dedicated to speaking with the public about crime in neighborhoods - you have to call them and it may require persistence to get to the right person but will be well worth the effort in the end. For Fairfax County Police Districts, go to this website - http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/police/stations/
To see a map-based search of crimes in Fairfax County, visit Fairfax County Crime. To see a map-based search of crimes in Loudoun County, visit Crime Reports. For Alexandria, please visit this link Alexandria Crime Reports Please be aware that these sites may exclude some types of crime, so it is better to speak to the police department rather than relying solely on these websites.
And finally, you should familiarize yourself with what different neighborhoods look like on the Megan's Law Sex Offender Registry so you will have determined what you consider to be average for a neighborhood and what levels are not acceptable for you.
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