Whether you have just moved to Southwest Florida or if you are a renter who is getting ready to take the home buyer plunge, one thing that is likely in the back of your mind (besides staying in your budget) is finding the right neighborhood for you.  This is a huge factor, in some cases, for determining the success of your move and how long you stay in one location.  If you are like me, you want to do it as little as possible.
We all have different tastes, lifestyles, and needs so there is no best neighborhood to magically tell you about.  The key to finding “your best neighborhood” is to evaluate and jot down what is important to you.  Remember, one person’s paradise may be another person’s nightmare.
Step one, before you ever do any type of search, consider creating a dream neighborhood profile.  Sit down and write out what it is that you want and ask yourself these types of questions:

  1. Do I have children or do I plan to have children?
  2. What type of home do I want?
  3. How far am I willing to commute?
  4. Do I want a newer, modern neighborhood or do I want something more historic?
  5. What is your current community lacking?
  6. Do you want to be in “walking distance” to places?
  7. Consider your “deal breakers”.

Once you have a profile written up, this can be your template for the rest of your research.

Here are a few tips, tricks, and ideas for trying to hone in on the perfect neighborhood for you and your family:
Online ToolsWhile some people may want to see “in-person” the potential neighborhoods, sometimes that just isn’t feasible.  If you are like me, you probably have kids in tow and we all know the price of gas isn’t on the cheap side, so luckily there are online tools to make the legwork easier from a distance.
First, there is http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/, which has been recommended by some top magazines like Money magazine.  Some of the categories that can help you filter out neighborhoods are urban sophisticates, first-time homebuyers, or great deals on great towns.  In addition to that, there is also an advanced search option to allow you to look for homes within your budget or in a particular setting.
Next, there is a fun little site called You Are Where You Live.  If knowing about the potential neighborhood by lifestyle segmentation is your thing, then this is your site.  The website uses a system called PRIZM to provide you with charts, graphs, and maps of neighborhoods by zip code to allow you to see if it might be a neighborhood your lifestyle will fit into.  Basically, if you are looking for a family friendly neighborhood, this site will tell you if the area you are searching has a family friendly demographic.  If nothing else, it is interesting to try out.
Finally, there is http://greatschools.org. If education and being near great schools for your kids is a top priority, I highly recommend this site as a starting point for your research.  Obviously, it is important to take other things into consideration when it comes to schooling, but Great Schools can help you narrow down the many options by showing you a school’s success.  However, please note that test scores, which is how this site bases most of their ratings, are only one aspect to a school’s overall success.

If a friendly atmosphere, well organized staff, or a place that may have your child(ren) engaged and thriving is more important than highly rated schools, I recommend looking into the schools themselves.  Complete Google searches, check out their websites, and take a tour of the school and so on.
Since I mentioned it above, don’t forget the power of good ol’ Google when you want to know more about your new potential neighborhood.  If you have a list of “must-haves” for your neighborhood, add those to your search criteria to see what kind of results you ping.  For example, are you looking for a rich “historical district”? A city with a “charming downtown”? Or a location with “walkable parks” or “nature trails”?  It is good to know what you want and Google can always help you find out if those options are in your prospective area.

Seeing is Believing
Finally, let’s not forget that if you are simply looking for a new neighborhood within the Southwest Florida area, there is always the ability for a quick reconnaissance mission especially if you have narrowed down your options.  While scoping out a neighborhood, try to look for some of these things:

  1. Sidewalks – this is a good indicator of an active neighbor, the potential for parks and other amenities, and safety.
  2. Taxes and Insurance – of course buying a house is just one expense, but you also have to consider property taxes, community fees, and homeowners insurance.  Some locations will be higher/lower.  
  3. Activities and Amenities – whether you are a community activist or a house hermit, you will want to make sure your new neighborhood has the things that you need/want for yourself or your family lifestyle.
  4. Convenience – Tying in with number three, you be happy in your new neighborhood, you want to make sure it meets up with your convenience standards.  For example, if you want an easy work commute, chances are you don’t want to live in a neighborhood 50 minutes from work.
  5. Remember, every place you visit will help you flesh out your picture of a place.  And once you’ve figured out some neighborhoods that will make you happy, it’s time to find that perfect house for your budget, but that is a whole other topic entirely.