Tara@Trulia posted a very interesting blog recently proposing that every buyer should ask a list of crime related questions about any property that they are seriously considering buying. The questions that Tara suggested were beyond the standard list of questions that every buyer asks about square footage, school district, and condo fees.Here are some additional questions that it is important to ask or research.  Your Realtor will probably be prohibited by Fair Housing laws from doing much beyond pointing you to law enforcement sources, so the burden is on you to do the research and ask the seller or the neighbors about the community.  In addition, what may be a comfortable situation to your Realtor may be terrifying to you – or vice versa. Do the research yourself. Don’t depend on your Realtor for these important questions.  Fortunately, there is a lot of information on the Internet so that you can get a better, more nuanced, and more usable understanding of your neighborhood-to-be.

Here’s a short list of the right questions to ask about crime before you buy a home.  Oh – and by the way – be sure to check your own neighborhood first before you check your new neighborhood.  You probably feel very comfortable in your current neighborhood – so find out the crime stats there before you check out the new neighborhood. 

 Tara’s first suggestion is to ask whether any sexual offenders live nearby. In most states, Megan’s Law and similar provisions mandate that certain individuals with histories of criminal convictions must register their home addresses with local authorities, who in turn are required to make this information available to the public. Google “your city, your state Megan’s Law registry” to find sites where you can type in an address (like the address of the home you’re considering buying) and find a list of registered sex offenders in the area. Many of these sites will also offer you a map showing your address and the relative locations of the homes of the registered offenders.  

The reality is that every neighborhood – even very upscale areas – has someone living in it who has committed a crime in the past, so don’t completely freak out if you happen to find someone in your neighborhood-to-be with a history of sex offenses. The utility of this information is that it empowers you and your children to recognize these dangers and to take care to avoid hazardous situations. That said, if you happen to have young children and notice that the Megan’s Law map has a halfway house with a dozen registered sex offenders living right next door to your target home, that information might change your decision about whether that property is the right one for you.  This is a call that you as the buyer need to make – based on good information. 

There is also power in following the path of the information you are given on these registry sites.  Many will surface information like what the registrants’ crimes were, when they happened, the registrants’ photos and more useful intelligence. This information can help you evaluate the degree to which you should be concerned before you buy.

2.  Happily this second research question is not one that we encounter frequently in the DC Metro area – Tara suggests asking whether the the home a drug lab.  A  a home that was a methamphetamine lab in a former life can be a significant health risk to you and your family.  Sellers should certainly disclose that a property was a meth lab – if they know, but many of these homes are sold by banks as foreclosures, or by estates, trusts, landlords or other corporate owners who don’t know the home’s past – or don’t have a legal obligation to disclose it.

Since the seller may not know anything to disclose, you can do your own research by talking with the neighbors who may reveal whether the house had a shady past. If the property does seem to have a story, then you can search the federal Drug Enforcement Association’s Clandestine Laboratory Registry,   http://www.justice.gov/dea/clan-lab/clan-lab.shtml.

3. The third question to ask is more general: What sorts of crimes happen in the area. Where and when do they happen? Crime happens virtually everywhere. But the details of crime patterns vary widely in various neighborhoods. Is it violent crime or thieves breaking into cars to steal the GPS at night?   

Based on this sort of information. a buyer might decide whether or not to buy, but also about whether to park a car outside (or not), whether to get an alarm and what is the best location in a given neighborhood  (e.g., interior cul-de-sac vs. thoroughfare in the same area).

Trulia Crime Maps offer precisely this sort of detailed information, so that buyers can  view a town and neighborhood’s crime rate in heat map format showing the relative violent and non-violent crimes that have taken place recently in different parts of town. It also provides information on crime trends, in terms of the frequency of criminal activity taking place at various hours of the day, and the most dangerous intersections in any town or area.  SpotCrime.com offers another angle on crime data, breaking down crime types with easy-to-scan icons and providing data for communities all over the country.

4.  After you find out the answers to all these questions, then go back and think about the home you are considering. Tara suggests evaluating what anti-crime features does – or can – the home have?  Review your disclosures and talk with the sellers (through your agent, of course) about what anti-crime features the home currently has. This will allow you to prepare for any upgrades, downgrades or changes you’ll want to make.  For example, if a home has security bars that were installed 3 decades ago, you might want to have them brought up to code with a fire release bar, or removed altogether.  Or, perhaps the sellers currently have the home wired for an alarm that can be armed, disarmed and video monitored remotely – if you want to continue that service, you’ll need to get that information and make the account change when you take over the other utilties and home services.

On the other hand, the home might not have any anti-crime features.  So, if there is a particular alarm or monitoring system you like, it is smart to check in with that provider before close of escrow to find out whether they can provide services to the new addres and, if so, what it will cost and take to equip the home and start service up at closing.

While all these questions may seem scary, they are important to ask.  The Lise Howe Group wants every buyer client to be comfortable with the property being considered – and to avoid unpleasant surprises at a later date.  Be sure to give us a call at 240-401-5577 and talk about how we can help with your home search.