We've all heard the adage: "Location, location, location" used when talking about real estate. It couldn't be truer than when you're choosing a property to make your home.

Officer Bob van Wulven, of the San Diego Police Department says, "You can't judge a book by its cover," nor a neighborhood by its looks.

He's been on the police force for 29 years and he's seen plenty of neighborhoods some of which look perfectly safe and secure but still do have crime.

You may come into an area like Carmel Valley where all the lawns are neatly trimmed, the houses are immaculate, and there aren't a lot of junk cars or [trash evident]. It looks like an upscale, clean, tidy neighborhood, but there could be some underlying crime that you are unaware of," says Officer van Wulven.

Carmel Valley is a sub-community of San Diego and its crime rate is relatively low.

"Most of the crime in Carmel Valley, for instance, is mischievous type stuff. There may occasionally be a car prowler, burglary or some kind of thefts and stuff like that, but there is not a lot of violent crime in Carmel Valley," explains officer van Wulven.

However, not all neighborhoods that appear to be well-kept are really safe. When you're considering buying a home in a neighborhood that you may not know much about it's important to learn about the area first rather than just basing your decision of the area on the way the neighborhood looks.

Of course, your real estate agent can help you learn a lot of details about the neighborhood, future planned development, and schools, but you'll find taking a few extra precautionary steps of your own will help to ensure a sound investment.

"The first thing to do would be to check with your local police department,"

Officer van Wulven recommends asking the police this question. "I'm thinking of moving into the area; can you tell me anything about crime, if it does exist here, and what kind of crime?"

He adds, "The type of crime is going to dictate what type of criminal activity is going on and what type of questionable characters might be coming into the neighborhood and posing a threat or danger to the safety of your family."

Some homeowners have made the mistake of making several visits to a neighborhood at the same time of day rather than coming back in the evening, on weekends, and during school time hours to see how the area changes. Observing the neighborhood and the people who live and work in the area will give you a better understanding of whether it's a fit for you and your family.

"Safety isn't necessarily crime. Safety could be traffic issues; how your kids are going to get to school," says Officer van Wulven.

Most parents before they buy a home will consider things such as how far away the school is and what kind of transportation exists? Officer van Wulven, who works in the traffic division, says you should also check into these things: "What is the geography around the school like? Do they have school crosswalks and crossing guards? Is there bus service? How many streets do your kids have to cross in order to get to school?"

Whether or not you have children, investigating the school system and traffic issues are important as a thriving school district can be an indication of an area that will continue to rise in property values. Of course, being too close to the school and boxed in by traffic jams can hurt the resale value of your home.

There are a few more sources that can provide assistance in learning about the neighborhood.

"Go have dinner at one of the restaurants in the area. You can strike up conversations with some of the patrons in that restaurant," says Officer van Wulven.

  • Talk to local business owners. Even if they don't live in the area, they will have some insight about the neighborhood and people living there.
  • Check with the area's city council and planning department.
  • Find out about owner-occupancy. Your agent is a good source for this kind of information. Ask about rental values -- even if you plan to live in the home. Often tenants don't have the same pride of homeownership that owners do; thus properties are not always kept up.
  • Check landscaping at major commercial developments; is it kept up?
  • Visit the local facilities such as malls, movie theaters, etc. Frequently these will be hang-outs for school-aged children and a good place to get an idea about the neighborhood kids.
  • Drive the neighborhood and see if there are a lot of home remodeling projects going on. If so, it likely means homeowners are planning to stick around and are willing to invest more in their homes because they like the neighborhood.

The more time you spend studying the location the less likely you are to discover something you really dislike about the neighborhood after you have bought the home.

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