How to Find Your Best Place – One Mother’s Tips & Secrets

16 Jul

Every year, I’m drawn to the lists of “best places” to live either in the US or globally.  The best of the best of lists, for the US, is compiled by Money Magazine.  Not only do they give a list of the past year’s Top 100 cities, they also create lists of cities in categories like: Best Places to Find ‘Rich’ Singles, Best Places to Retire, Best Places to find Jobs, etc…  Some of the lists, like the top cities with the highest median incomes, have little meaning to me.  The most expensive cities are rarely the “best” places to live, witness how few of these cities ever make the Top 100 list overall.

So how do the folks at Money Magazine (now a division of CNN) make their determination as to which cities are the best in any given year?  Factors taken into consideration include: strong local economies, relatively low population sizes, affordable real estate, good schools and low crime – pretty everything one should want in a place one intends to call home.  Although, my top two cities – San Francisco and Chicago – would never have a chance of making this list.  Nor would any other major city, since low population is a consideration.  Of course, “suburban” enclaves can (and often do) make the cut.  Take for example last year’s number one city – Louisville, CO – a small town just outside of Boulder, which is another of my favorite cities.

The problem with these lists is their categorization of “best” may not  take into account your needs.  I, for one, require diversity in any city I choose to call home – not just racial diversity, but religious diversity, progressive mindsets, and the ability to have a conversation with my neighbors without feeling like they are trying to pass judgment on or control my associations.  Often, these are the things best found in an “urban” environment.  Urban life lends itself to a natural diversity that can not easily be mimicked in smaller population settings.  Urban life allows tends to provide more options  in the “things to do” category.  Of course.  And let’s not forget, there’s the fact that I’m a city girl at heart.  So, in the spirit of progressive honesty, I’ll admit, I may be a bit biased.

Personally, while I love to browse through them, I think the best list, with the focus provided by Money Magazine, overlooks the wonders of many a magical inner urban neighborhood, which can provide good schools and a relatively safe environment despite their surroundings.  Plus, I can attest to the fact that after years of big city living, without a break in or a prowler, it was only after we moved to a “small” town setting that those issues came into play.   Fact: no place is 100% crime free.

The problem with finding idyllic neighborhoods in big cities is you often need insider knowledge.  Locals will know thinks like: oh, the east side of Neighborhood X is a bit dicey but the west side is Nirvana.  Or, 20 years ago Neighborhood Y was the pits but now it’s got a cool vibe with an up and coming neighborhood association.

So, maybe you’ve lived your life in smaller cities and small towns, and you’re getting ready to take the leap into a big city.  Maybe the recession is forcing your family to rethink your location.  Big cities have the distinct advantage of having more employers and therefore, larger job pools. 

Yet, not everyone has insider knowledge and not every one wants to be a urban pioneer.  How does one go about finding the best places when considering a big city?

My family and I have had to move more than a few times for job opportunities in the past few years.  Here’s how I go about finding the “spots” I’d like to target in a new city:

  1. The best schools in the area.

    We have small children, so education is top of our list.  However, even if you don’t have children, looking for a neighborhood with a great public school isn’t a bad idea.  Good schools come from an active community, always a plus.  Good schools mean plenty of local involvement from the school board, PTA and community business.  Again a plus.  Good schools may mean higher property taxes, but usually compared to the given metro area, not by much.  And there are plenty of communities that are assessing high property taxes without the good schools to show for it, so…

    Start with Great Schools dot org.  Great Schools has been around for years, yet I’m always amazed at home many families relocate without using their resources.  It’s free and they provide a ranking of local public schools based on the latest test scores.  Schools are ranked from 1 to 10 (1 being the poorest performing schools, 10 being the highest).  Keep in mind that a school with a 10 may not be YOUR best school, based on other local factors, and a 7 may not be a horrible option if everything else falls in line for your family.  But my personal belief is school performance should have some bearing on the bigger question of where to send your children to school.

    If you have children, start with a city search, select a school that meets your basic needs and then run a Great Schools search by clicking on the “compare to other schools” feature.  You can compare to other local schools, compare to other schools in that city, or compare to other schools in that school district.  Depending on the design of the educational system in that community, these may or may not provide you with differing results.  But that’s your starting point.

  2. Screen For the Scene

    No one wants to live in a crime-ridden neighborhood.  In general, the best tool I’ve found for overall US crime data presented in a map form is Spot Crime. Sometimes, you can find added info in a really good Wikipedia entry for the neighborhood of your choice.  Also, be sure to sign up at the user-driven forum city-data.com.  This is THE place to post any questions you have about your chosen locale and a great way to narrow down your choices. 
  3. Narrowing Your Focus

    Once you’ve identified your school(s) of choice.  Try to find an online school district map.  Usually, the school board will have the district mapping accessible online.  In some less tech-friendly schools, you may have to call the school district and ask that they fax you a copy of the school’s districting map.  The point is – you want to know which homes in the community feed into that school.  NOTE: If you don’t have children just take at look at where the highest concentration of 9 and 10 ranked schools are and narrow your focus to that area of the city.

    Call the school, explain that you are moving into the area and ask the receptionist if their community has a neighborhood name – like Glen Oaks or Rally Park or whatever – remember, you’re not looking for the school’s name!  If there’s no specific name to that area, be sure to get the school’s zip code.

  4. Check the Real Estate

    Once you have a good feel for the boundaries of the school area, go to one of the following real estate websites:
    Realtor.com
    Trulia
    Zillow

    Run a search for homes for sale on one of these sites, using either the specific neighborhood name, or the zip code if you couldn’t narrow it down.  Zillow is my personal favorite starting point for real estate searches.  It’s like the Google of real estate searches.  For one, you can type the neighborhood name right into the search box on their home page.  Also, Zillow really broke ground with its property value estimate feature, which will give you an idea of what a particular home “should” be selling for based on recent sales.  Other sites provide similar data, but Zillow is tops.

  5. Create your Drive By list

    In this case, drive by is a good thing.  In that you are going to take you list of “favorite” homes and drive through the area.  Try to see the neighborhood at varying times (night vs. day, weekdays vs. weekends), and talk a walk!  Nothing like walking to get a “feel” for the neighborhood.  Check the local stores, the neighborhood park (whether you plan to use it or not, a well-maintained local park is a sign of a good neighborhood), stop by the local city hall and pick up their new residents “welcome” packet.  This will give a great heads up on what’s current and what’s happening in that area.  If there’s a flyer/insert on the recent crackdown in crime (well, that’s your red flag).  On the other hand, you might find a copy of featured write-up about the community in the local paper or magazine.

It won’t take long to pinpoint your favorite spot in town, if you follow these steps and do your homework!  After all the best place for you and your loved ones may not be on Money Magazine’s top list (and that’s alright!).

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One Response to “How to Find Your Best Place – One Mother’s Tips & Secrets”

  1. Americas Best Places To Retire August 26, 2010 at 12:32 am #

    Retirement is about lifestyle and trying to find the best places to retire can be overwhelming. This is some great information that can really help in making the search a whole lot easier!

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