Should You Talk to Neighbors Before Buying a Home? Yes!

Neighbors can make or break a real estate sale

Girl peeking over a fence between properties
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You can tell a lot about a neighborhood by driving through it. Manicured lawns and well-kept homes show pride of ownership, while junk cars parked on overgrown lawns and overflowing trashcans at the curb are signs of neglect. But if you rely on these indications alone, you could face a rude awakening when you move in.

Do not be afraid to talk with the neighbors before you buy a home. Not only will meeting them give you an idea of whether you'll be compatible, but neighbors will often disclose material facts that a seller might forget or not think are important enough to mention.

An Example

Gary and Stephen were ecstatic when they found their dream home. It had everything they wanted: location, space, vintage, updates, and a quaint yard. The price was right, too.

Shortly after signing the contract, they drove over to the home to meet the neighbors on both sides. The neighbors on one side told them that the basement of their soon-to-be home flooded on a regular basis. They seemed bothered that the sump pump in the vacant house drained water into their yard. The seller's disclosures hadn't mentioned a wet basement.

The neighbors to the east were blatantly hostile. They pointed to rose bushes that appeared to be growing on the seller's property, and they said they had planted them. A fence existed between the two homes, but the neighbors said that the boundaries were in dispute. They also said, "We smoke like chimneys and plan to sit on our front porch every night smoking. There's nothing you can do about it."

It was clear that the neighbors on both sides of this home had a bone to pick with the existing seller, and Gary and Stephen decided that they didn't want to inherit that ongoing battle. They ended up buying a different property in another neighborhood.

Neighbors Can Be Unreasonable—Another Example

Tom and Susan were at the home they were buying with their home inspector when they met the neighbor from across the street by accident. Their agent was present and noticed that an SUV had parked on the lawn of the million-dollar home. Tom went outside to investigate.

The driver seemed angry, and he hollered at Tom, "This is what you get for parking in front of my driveway!" He then stomped on the gas pedal, sharply turned the wheel, and ground out a foot of the lawn with the tires.

It wasn't even Tom and Susan's car blocking the driveway. It was somebody else's vehicle and it encroached about six inches onto the neighbor's driveway entrance.

Needless to say, Tom and Susan were not about to live across the street from an angry neighbor. They canceled the purchase contract immediately.

Questions to Ask Neighbors Before Buying a Home

Nobody knows the neighborhood like people who already live there, but you have to know what to ask. Try these questions to see what kind of responses you get.

  • How long have you lived in the neighborhood? Someone new to the neighborhood might not be the most reliable gauge.
  • What do you like best about living here? Wild parties on weekends are only a good thing if you want to attend.
  • What do you like least about the neighborhood? You can learn a lot from this question. A lot of the answers might seem petty, but some could be important, such as that it takes forever for authorities to reach them in an emergency.
  • If you could change one thing about this street, what would it be? This can be particularly telling because it's all a matter of degree. It might be something that didn't immediately come to mind when you asked what they liked least because it's not that big a big deal to them, whereas the "slight" flaw they mention now might drive you nuts.
  • Do all the neighbors get along with each other? Maybe the driveway-obsessive guy is the exception to the rule. That might not be too bad, but it would be far worse if groups of neighbors tend to go at each other like rabid dogs.
  • Have you ever noticed anything odd about this house or yours? You might have to guide this one a little by defining what you think is odd. Structural defects? A ghostly apparition peering out from the attic window in the dark of night? It can depend on your concerns and what bothers you.

Be Prepared to Be Surprised

There's no end to what you can find out from talking to neighbors that you wouldn't know if you hadn't asked. Buying a home is a long-term commitment. These conversations can save you from making a huge buying mistake and moving into a neighborhood where you could be miserable for a long time to come.

At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.