Visitor Question: What are the signs of neighborhood decline? I have been in a nice enough neighborhood for about 25 years. My next door neighbor has been here only five years, but she told me she sees signs of neighborhood decline. When I asked her how she knows, she didn't answer directly. She just gave me a laundry list of things that bother her. It seemed to me more like a gripe session, but then I got to thinking that maybe I was ignoring some signs of neighborhood decline. I sure don't want to see my property values go down, and I don't want to risk personal safety either. How can you know for sure?
Editors Reply: You don't know for sure until it's too late, given your two specific concerns. But you can learn to read the signs.
1. Look at the property values. If you have the patience, you could track the values that the assessor is assigning if you live in a location with real estate property taxes. Many places show these online now, so all you need is patience and time. Pick a house in each block and just record every new assessment. Also you can ask real estate agents to track actual sales prices.
If your neighborhood's values are falling, while average values for the whole city are increasing, that is a clue. But be careful that the city number does not include a lot of new construction.
If that sounds like way too much work, you also could check Zillow or other online real estate portals. You could check the value they estimate for your own house every month, and look at the trend line over a year. In general, we would say that if your property values are falling at all, it is a bad sign, unless your city is in a well documented steep decline.
2. Look at crime statistics over multiple years. Your city should be willing to share this information, although some proud suburbs and stubborn city administrations try make them state secrets. Insist on having these statistics packaged for your specific neighborhood. It is especially unreliable for you to rely on crime hearsay or just a few incidents you know about. Except in the highest crime areas, these impressions can be quite unreliable. Check actual numbers.
Some numbers are more important than others. Be wary of any increase in crimes against persons in your neighborhood (assaults, murders, rapes, and so forth). If the numbers are very small, which probably they are if your neighborhood is "nice enough," be careful not to draw conclusions when assaults move from four to five in the last year. Also look for an increase in home burglaries, a particularly bad sign. Car burglaries or even stolen cars might not be a big issue if they occur at a sizeable store or commercial district, but car burglaries in the driveway can be a real negative.
What are the common threads of all of these comments? In short, watch for anything that leads you to believe that bad guys and gals believe your neighborhood is an easy target. Watch for indications that neighbors aren't looking out for one another and are afraid to get involved if they notice a suspicious situation.
3. Observe carefully how well neighbors maintain their properties. Everything from peeling paint to junk in the front yard can show a lack of upkeep, and if this is increasing in your neighborhood, this could be what your newer neighbor means by signs of neighborhood decline. But leaky or sagging roofs, foundation problems, bulging walls, and the like are far more serious, and when more than one house on a block shows unaddressed structural issues, it indicates either lack of confidence that investment will pay off or lack of ability to pay for needed repairs, neither of which are positive.
If you don't understand much about buildings, you can observe whether people take out the trash, maintain their lawns, and make some attempt to beautify the outside of their homes.
One or two eccentric, old, or ill individuals who don't maintain their property well for a year or two aren't much of a concern. Neighborhoods consist of myriad details; the best ones have a dud or two at any given time. But it is the pattern you are looking for, and especially the trend over time.
4. Look for any trends about the people moving in. Would you suspect that their jobs and incomes are as substantial as those of your neighbors when you moved there long ago? Over time, do you guess that the prosperity levels of your new neighbors are going down? Are you seeing any pattern of new neighbors having to go to lower quality mortgage handlers to finance the homes? A few conversations with newer neighbors help you figure this out.
5. If you have a neighborhood association, is it more or less active and enthusiastic than in the past? If it's tough to stir up much excitement, this could signal the beginning of neighborhood decline. It should not surprise anyone that if there is no neighborhood association, we recommend that you start a neighborhood association.
6. How have important institutions and businesses been treating your neighborhood? Did the pizza joint stop delivery to your neighborhood? That is a really bad sign! Do the utilities and the cable company follow through on complaints from your neighbors, or do they think they can ignore you more than other city residents? Did the school system recently redistrict your neighborhood to assign children to a less desirable elementary school? Does the city rush to repair your potholes every spring, or are they passing you by while other neighborhoods still get the service?
Do you get any positive mentions in your local newspaper or electronic media, or is all of the publicity of the bad kind? Yes, there is a tendency toward sensationalism on the part of all the media these days, but when they start trash talking you for more than one incident or situation, other potential home buyers and renters are forming an opinion of your neighborhood.
7. Are rents increasing, steady, or decreasing? This is relatively easy to monitor from one year to the next, since you can call and ask about the rent. Except in cases of dramatic over-building or economic recession, rents should be rising modestly every year if tenants regard your neighborhood as desirable.
Ask yourselves specifically about the perceived stability of renters who are moving into the neighborhood. Do they seem like people who would want to stay a while and who can afford rent? Do young renters like the neighborhood, or are they eager to leave as soon as possible? You could actually learn this by listening to coffee shop chatter for a morning.
8. This brings us to our last sign. Do you even have a coffee shop or other place where informal gathering can occur? Are you losing local businesses? Everyone is losing middle of the road clothing stores, but we're talking about grocery stores, dry cleaners, hair salons, bakeries, and other businesses typical of neighborhoods. When these personal services and essential goods move out, that's often a sign that buying power is declining. Again, don't overgeneralize; losing two of these in a year could be a coincidence, so try to learn the circumstances before making a big judgment about lost businesses. Also look at whether commercial space rents up within a few months.
Those are a few of the things you could consider when figuring out if your neighborhood is on the decline before others do.
We want to mention a couple of things not to consider. One is whether the median age of the neighbors is climbing. A lot of elderly in the neighborhood might just mean that they all moved in when they were young, and loved it enough to stick around. If you don't see some of these other indicators along with the aging of the population, you can reasonably expect that the neighborhood gradually will turn over to a younger generation. This can actually be a healthy and common thing, especially in suburbs.
Another thing not to consider is the rumor mill. Facebook groups, NextDoor posts, and other assorted social media can really stir up negativity. Look to see if just a few people generate many of the reports of suspicious people and circumstances, or if these reports are widespread. Downplay what the fear mongers and overly ambitious neighborhood watch types say. If there is just suspicion, not crime statistical increase, don't worry about it. This paranoia is a sign of the times, sometimes racially motivated, and based in the fact that people tend to not know their neighbors as much as in the past. Watch what people do more than what a few people say.
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