What you look for in a neighborhood changes as your life changes. When you are first out on your own, having an apartment or house that is within walking distance of local night life is a big draw — but it becomes more of a big drag if noise from the local clubs and bars keep your baby from sleeping through the night a few years later.
But just because you know that you want a more family-friendly neighborhood doesn’t mean you know what to look for. Here are five features you’ll want to keep an eye out for as you find the home your family will grow into:
1. Good schools
Your little peanut may only be a baby right now, but preschool and kindergarten are just around the corner. Choosing a neighborhood that has good schools is an important part of finding a home that will serve you well for years to come.
Websites such as GreatSchools.net allow you to search schools by ZIP code, city, district, or school name. You’ll learn information about test scores, student-to-teacher ratios, and student demographics, which can help you figure out if the local schools will be a good fit for your family.
Don’t get hung up on ratings and test scores, however, because there is more to a good school than that. For instance, though I love our current house and my son’s elementary school, I wish I had thought about the fact that our school district has no bussing. That means I will be on the hook for school drop off all the way into high school.
This is why it’s a good idea to make sure you fully check out the schools and/or districts you’re interested in to make sure you know what to expect from them. A good fit for your children and for your family’s needs is a crucial part of a good education. (See also: How to Evaluate a Neighborhood Before You Buy)
2. A community of other families
It may be cliché to say that it takes a village to raise a child, but it certainly does make parenthood easier if you have a local village handy when your kids are small.
My current home is on a street that includes about a dozen other families with small children, which is not only great for my kids in terms of making friends, but it has also been a major boon to my husband and me. For example, last week I was running late to pick up my seven-year-old from school, and I was able to call my neighbor whose daughter goes to the same elementary school. She picked up both kids and I didn’t feel stressed at the thought of my son waiting forlornly by the playground until I made it there.
You can look for evidence of whether a neighborhood will welcome a family and small children. Are there bikes and toys in yards? Are there children outside playing? Do you see families going for walks? If you see a community of families enjoying their time outside, there’s a good chance this will be a welcoming community for your own little family.
3. Low traffic
One of the first houses my husband and I looked at when we moved last year was on the corner of a busy street. Before we went to look at the house itself, we sat in our car and counted the number of vehicles that passed by over the course of five minutes. Dozens of cars drove past, going faster than I was comfortable with. We turned down the house, even though it was otherwise exactly what we were looking for.
It’s not enough to pass on homes that are near busy streets. You also need to make sure your sleepy neighborhood street isn’t used as a shortcut during rush hour. Long neighborhood streets that offer a straight shot from one high-traffic area to another can be abused by rush hour commuters who just want shave a few minutes off their drive. You can avoid this problem by looking for a house on either a cul-de-sac or curving street, or just checking out the traffic on the street of a potential home. (See also: 14 Things You’ll Hate About Your Next House)
Though the absence of sidewalks may seem like a minor detail when you are looking at a new home, having them can go a long way to making a neighborhood more family friendly. Not only do sidewalks make it more possible for families to get out for walks in nice weather, but they encourage children’s independence, since you know your kids can safely get to a friend’s house several doors down without needing to hold your hand. Sidewalks also make an ideal spot to learn to ride a bike, work on sidewalk chalk art, and hold a lemonade stand — all staples of a happy childhood.
5. Nearby parks or playgrounds
Having a park or a playground within walking distance can ensure that you find a family-friendly neighborhood. Even if the street you end up on doesn’t have a lot of families with similar-aged kids, making the nearby park one of your regular haunts will help you to meet other young families in the neighborhood and build the kind of caring community you’re looking for. And that’s not to mention the benefit of having a nearby destination where you can take the kids to get their wiggles out without having to get in the car.