Whether you’re looking for a new home to rent or buy, if you’re not familiar with the area, you’ll need a reliable way to gauge the neighborhood. Of course I follow the traditional advice to check the school ratings, crime reports, and all that. I also check the social media presence of the police department. One city we looked at had a lot of complaints about police negligence and racism on the city police department’s Facebook page, while another city’s Facebook page was full of thank you notes from the residents.
All of that is well and good, but nothing compares to being in the city and getting a real feel for the area. I started one habit to gauge a neighborhood after years of looking for new apartments in unfamiliar areas. It’s become even more crucial as we look for our first home to purchase. So what’s the most important thing to check when looking for a new home?
We plan to arrive a few minutes early to our tours and use the extra time to drive around the neighborhood. Then we look on a map and find the local grocery store. If it’s walking distance, we’ll park at the home and walk to the store. If not, we’ll drive to the potential new home, then drive to the store and go inside.
The grocery store is one of the stores you’re going to be visiting most frequently, so the grocery store trip is super informative. Here’s what I evaluate during these visits.
What store is it?
Safeway, Grocery Outlet, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Sprouts all appear in different types of areas. Depending on what you’re looking for, which grocery store is nearby can tell you a lot about the demographics of the area. Whole Foods tends to be in and create expensive areas, meaning residents have higher incomes. The area you’re looking in may have a mom-and-pop shop. If so, I check the smaller store and the nearest larger grocer. You may go to the larger grocery store for your big trips, but the smaller store will probably be the place you want to go if you have a sudden craving or didn’t realize you were out of something.
What condition is the store in?
If the store seems in disrepair, I pay attention to that. I also pay attention to the smell of the store and how clean it appears. I’ve been to grocery stores that had large sections of linoleum missing, dim or flickering lights, and broken displays. When a store doesn’t take care of their facility, I worry that they aren’t handling food properly either.
What does the store sell?
If you’re looking for specific items, look for them here. Check for organic produce and other specialty products if that’s important to you. I have specific brands of orange juice and vegan mayonnaise that I prefer, so I check if they’re available whenever we check out local stores. I’m gluten and lactose intolerant, so I also check for gluten-free and dairy-free or plant-based options. For us, not having a certain item wouldn’t be a dealbreaker, but it’s nice to know. What the store sells will also tell you about the people who live in that neighborhood.
What does the produce and meat look like?
A good way to check if a store knows how to handle food is the seafood department. Even if you don’t eat seafood or meat, you’ll want to see the bivalves (clams, mussels) in the case closed or only slightly open. If they’re wide open, they’re not safe to eat and shouldn’t be in the case for sale anymore. Also pay attention to smells at the seafood counter; it shouldn’t actually smell terribly fishy. In the produce section, look at the produce as if you’re going to buy. I’ve seen moldy produce at some places, and I’ve been in a grocery store that had a mildew smell in the produce section.
How do prices compare?
Check a few items you buy frequently and see how much they cost. If the costs are significantly higher, that could be a dealbreaker depending on your situation. If the groceries are much more expensive, you may need to plan extra time to go somewhere else for groceries or your grocery budget may need to be adjusted if you move.
What are the people like?
Do a little people watching — of both the customers and the employees. Are these people you would want to be friends with? If you like meeting new people, you might even stop and chat with someone who doesn’t seem like they’re in a hurry. You may not necessarily end up being friends with your neighbors, but you might see them a lot and neighbors can have a huge impact on how you feel about your home.
I’ve given a few examples of what to look for and pay attention to when you’re visiting a grocery store, but this process for me isn’t about any one of these items. For example, when I pay attention to the condition at the store (lights are in working order, floors are clean), what I’m actually evaluating is if the place feels stagnant or neglected. When you walk into the store, pay attention to how you feel. Would you feel comfortable coming here by yourself at night?
I gauge the store based on the whole picture of the store and the neighborhood, but the main factor in all of this is how I feel when I’m in the neighborhood, and for this exercise, how I feel when I’m in the store. The prompts above are provided because they’re more concrete things to pay attention to, but you can’t necessarily get an accurate picture by visiting a place once for a few minutes, which is why it’s about how I feel when I’m there. And every time I use this method, it’s spot on.