When we were looking for a new home last Summer, my list of must haves was long, but flexible. A showstopping kitchen and renovated bathrooms would be great, but I was willing to do some work if the house had great bones. However, ample closet space was nonnegotiable, I wouldn't compromise on a decent-sized yard with mature trees, and I would never buy a house without a lot of natural light. And of course, there was the reason we were moving in the first place: the house had to be in a great school district.
After searching for almost a year, we were lucky to find a house that fulfilled all of the above requirements while surprisingly looking nothing like what I expected to buy. ("I hate pre-fab houses built in the '90s with half moon windows, so don't show me any," I told our realtor at our first meeting. Our new house was built in 1993, and let's just not discuss our front windows, okay?)
The biggest surprise about our new home, however, had nothing to do with the interior or those outdated windows. Somehow, without really trying, we ended up in a kid-filled neighborhood where block parties, impromptu parent happy hours, and frolicking, unsupervised children à la the 1980s is the norm, and I couldn't feel luckier. "I feel like you live in Mayberry," my mom told me (referencing Andy Griffith's idyllic small town) after visiting on Halloween, a big night for my 'hood in which neighbors passed out hot dogs, popcorn, spiked cider, hot chocolate, and, oh yeah, candy, to dozens and dozens of adorable little trick-or-treaters (many of whom ended the night telling ghost stories on my front lawn by flashlight).
In the four months we've lived in our home, I've definitely learned that while a house is important, the neighborhood it exists in can be infinitely more so, especially when you have young kids. However, "cool neighbors" and "convenient play dates" aren't usually listed on an MLS listing, so here are five things you can look for and things you can ask about if you are hunting for a picture-perfect place to raise your family.
- Look at the neighbors' garage doors during the afternoon and evening. Open garage doors are often a sign of active kids and families, who are out riding bikes, taking walks, and doing yard work. The more your neighbors are outside, the better chance you have to meet them.
- Ask about bus service. Although school drop off might be a great way to meet new moms, the bus offers so many other benefits. You'll meet neighbor moms at the bus stop, you'll get an extra 30-60 minutes of school time for your kids (who, I might add, seem to absolutely love the ride), and you won't have to worry if school start and end times interfere with the wake up and nap times of your younger kids.
- Drive by a bus drop off. Sure, you might feel like a stalker, but driving through the 'hood while the bus is dropping off the elementary kids will give you a great idea of how old the children in the neighborhood are. You'll also get to check out the moms/strollers/siblings meeting them.
- Look online at the neighborhood's recent sales. My neighborhood is half original owner families with high school- and college-aged kids (hello, babysitters), but the young families we've bonded with all moved in within the last two to four years. Having a lot of neighbors who are new to the 'hood usually means everyone is still open to making new connections.
- Check if the neighborhood has a Facebook page. A dedicated social media page is a sure sign that the neighborhood is connected and, well, social. It's also an easy way to reach out to potential neighbors to ask questions about what they like about the neighborhood — or just to stalk their photos and see if you can imagine yourself as friends.