Before I put an offer in on my house, I already knew all the neighborhood quirks I would encounter once I moved in. I knew I'd be able to faintly hear a train at 10:05 p.m. most nights, that I'd be living along the high school homecoming parade route, and that one of my elderly neighbors recently had a stroke and would love to have help walking his dog.
Surprisingly, I didn't get this intel from my real estate agent or even the current owners. Instead, it came from a would-be neighbor. While I was taking a second walkthrough of the new townhome in a Denver suburb I was eyeing, she was outside watering her plants. I decided on my way out to walk over, say hello, and strike up a light conversation about the neighborhood. It was a great choice as talking to her gave me the final assurance that this would be the right neighborhood for me. I put a winning bid in on the row-style home and moved in a few weeks later.
Maybe it's my background as a newspaper reporter who loves gathering information like it's a scavenger hunt, but I've always approached situations with hopes of striking a balance between information from officials and "real people." This has always bled into my house or apartment searches. I gather information about warranties, the closing timeline, and nearby school districts from real estate agents, builders, and leasing professionals, then I talk with the people watering their plants or walking their dog to fill in the blanks about the day-to-day life that will come with the house. Neighbors are always the ones who will tell you if the walls are thin or it's impossible to make a right turn in the morning at the nearest intersection because traffic is so congested. They end up telling you the most candid details, too, since they don't really have all that much at stake in the home sale.
This isn't a new habit of mine: During my last apartment search, a tenant I caught in the parking lot at one complex told me the pool was seemingly always shut down for maintenance, that guest parking spots were hard to come by, and that the tow patrol was unforgiving. That was enough for me to pass on the apartment complex.
I ultimately chose an apartment complex that had an on-site gym after a resident told me that hardly anyone used it. That allowed me to justify paying slightly higher rent because I'd be able to cancel my gym membership. She also dished that there was a monthly happy hour that residents actually went to and there was a good mix of young professionals living in the complex who played volleyball on the weekends.
Of course, there's an art to this! I don't recommend going up to your neighbors with a pen, a pad of paper, and a clear agenda. Rather, strike up a friendly conversation and ask open-ended questions. When you say something like "I want to make sure I'd be a good fit for the neighborhood," it shows that you want to be a courteous neighbor.
And of course, take everything they say with a grain of salt (your neighbors might just be personalities, which is something useful to know as well!). The things most annoying to them might not mean anything to you. Case in point: While my neighbor was griping about the noise from the train, I've actually come to appreciate it after moving in (it lends quite the cinematic effect as I'm reading mystery novels in bed each night).