Co-authored by Greg Sandler
When you buy a house, you’re doing more than purchasing a property. You’re investing in a home, a place to build your future. That’s why you want to make sure you’re buying the right home in the right location for you. And part of making that decision is knowing how to tell if a neighborhood is safe.
We asked experts how to tell if a neighborhood is safe, and we’ve rounded up the best of their tips here.
There are a range of safety concerns to consider, and a number of ways to dig into an area and find out whether it’s the right environment for you. That’s why figuring out if a neighborhood is safe is a multi-step effort.
What's in this Article?
There’s no point doing a deep dive on the safety of an area if it doesn’t have the resources and amenities you need. Consider the following questions:
- Do you enjoy walking around your neighborhood to run errands or for pleasure?
- Are you a commuter and need easy and fast access to the freeway during rush hour?
- Are you a young single person and want lively nightlife close by?
- Will you rely on public transportation for commuting, errands, and social events?
- Do you have children in school and want to know the quality of the public schools in the area?
- What are the child care options for the children?
These questions are meant to get you thinking about your lifestyle needs, but also about your safety concerns.
If you enjoy walking or running, you’ll want to know about pedestrian safety in the neighborhood, as well as the safety and availability of local parks and trails.
If you’re a commuter, you’ll want to know about traffic safety and accidents nearby. Is there a particularly high number of accidents on the stretch of freeway closest to your home? Or was the highway recently expanded or updated to make it safer for commuters?
If you have children, you’re going to want to know about child care options. Is child care affordable in the area? Or is there an overwhelming demand but not enough qualified caretakers? What is the safety track record of the available daycares?
The things that are most important to you about an area will dictate where you focus your attention on figuring out if it’s a safe neighborhood.
Step 2: Take advantage of online data
Data you find online can’t tell a neighborhood’s whole story. That’s one reason Realtor.com and Redfin removed neighborhood crime stats from their listings last year. They said that the information used in crime stats is often incomplete and may not accurately reflect the safety of an area.
Still, online data can offer a place to start your research when you’re considering a particular neighborhood.
We asked real estate agents, attorneys, and other experts how to tell if a neighborhood is safe. They suggested starting with these online sources.
The following websites can show you how often law enforcement responded to a specific neighborhood or ZIP code.
If the city you’re buying in doesn’t provide data to one of these online services, try a different one. Not all agencies upload data to every service:
- AreaVibes: Assigns a livability score from 1 to 100 for cities. The scores incorporate crime data but also access to public services and walkability. Also, current and former residents can leave reviews of the area, which can be useful for gaining insight into day-to-day life there
- City Data: Compiles a variety of demographic data, including crime rates, for municipalities throughout the U.S.
- CityProtect: Pulls in incident reports, including traffic violations, from a variety of police and sheriff’s departments around the nation. Not all law enforcement agencies participate
- CrimeMapping: Shows a variety of law enforcement incident reports on a map organized by ZIP code, but not all local agencies provide data. Crimegrade.org is less detailed than CrimeMapping, but it covers more of the country, so you can use the two sites to supplement one another when looking for crime reports and statistics
- Family Watchdog: Pulls data from your state’s sex offender registry
- Neighborhoodscout: This site compiles a variety of demographic data, but you’ll hit a paywall before seeing most of the details
- Spotcrime: Another map-based aggregator of public records from some area law enforcement agencies
You can also check your city’s or county’s website for public records. Some agencies let you search for incident reports by neighborhood or ZIP code. Some even offer map-based platforms.
If your local police department offers a crime map, it may include a summary of crime in the area, as well as provide granular, street-by-street data.
You can sense a neighborhood’s vibe on social media as well. Start by searching Facebook for the neighborhood where you’re thinking about buying a house. Many neighborhoods have public groups on Facebook, which are useful for a number of reasons.
Search posts for reports or complaints about crime. You may find that car break-ins are common, but that violent crime is not. Or, you might see complaints about police not responding quickly or efficiently enough when crimes do occur. Best case scenario, crime is minimal and everyone in the community feels safe.
Consider posting in social forums, such as Facebook groups or subreddits dedicated to the city in which you plan to live. If you post that you’re thinking about moving and are looking for information on the best neighborhoods to live, amenities, crime, and other quality of life factors, you’ll likely get a wealth of responses. Hearing from people who actually live in different areas you might consider can often be more insightful than general websites.
Also, be sure to check out Nextdoor, which is a social media service created specifically to connect neighbors with each other.
You won’t find many hard numbers on social media, but you can get a sense for what goes on in a neighborhood. Current residents often post and comment about break-ins, automobile accidents, or anything else that’s out of the ordinary.
Remember: You’re seeing only what’s posted and not a full reflection of the neighborhood. There’s a lot — both good and bad — that never makes it onto Facebook, Nextdoor, and other social media platforms.
Just about every expert who told us how to tell if a neighborhood is safe mentioned the National Sex Offender Public Website. The U.S. Department of Justice operates this site, which compiles data from most states’ sex offender registries.
Just enter an address to see the location of every registered sex offender in the surrounding area. You can also see photos of offenders and the nature of their offenses.
This is a powerful tool. But, just like any data, it has its limitations. For example, different states have different rules for sex offenders. Someone who might be required to register as a sex offender in one state may not have to register in other states.
Always remember the site shows only sex offenders who have been convicted of a crime and required to register. It won’t show someone who has never been charged and convicted or someone who has yet to follow the law and register.
In other words, you shouldn’t rely exclusively on this tool. Just because someone isn’t listed doesn’t mean that person is safe.
As consumers, we crave simple data. That’s why so many online reviews use the five-star format. At a glance, you can see how a product performs. Five stars are better than four, right?
Neighborhood data isn’t so simple. For example, what does it mean when there were three assault cases in one neighborhood and only two in another? Is the neighborhood with two cases automatically safer?
Not always. If you plan to use online data to tell if a neighborhood is safe, be sure you look at a lot of data over broader spans of time. The larger your sample size, the more precise your assessment will be.
Pro tip: Look up the neighborhood where you live now to see its data and ratings. That can help provide a reference point for what the numbers mean elsewhere.
Data can provide a good starting point. It’s a time-saver, a way to narrow down a lot of neighborhood choices quickly.
But before investing in a community, you’ll need more than just data to work with, especially if you’re a parent who’s buying into a new neighborhood.
Here are some other strategies:
“There are few methods as effective as having a direct conversation,” said Scott Rubzin of Tiffany Property Investments in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Take a moment to introduce yourself to potential neighbors and ask for their opinion on the safety of the location.
“Since they’ve been living in the neighborhood for a long time,” Rubzin said, “their opinion will have a lot of weight.”
“Before you close on a deal, head on over to the local police station,” said Keith Sant of Kind House Buyers in Tacoma, Washington. “They can give buyers a much better idea of the crime
rate persisting in that locality.”
“The official crime rate is a popular way of discerning the safety level of the neighborhood,” Sant said. “But for a deeper understanding, you should always talk to the local police.”
“Usually crime and unsafe living conditions drive homeowners away from their homes,” said Gian Moore, editor of MellowPine, a site about DIY home improvement. “Many people try to sell or rent their homes and live elsewhere because of these conditions.
You can check out vacancies and other properties for sale on listing websites, which will also show you the list prices for the homes as well.
But keep in mind that just because an area has a lot of vacancies or homes for sale doesn’t mean it’s undesirable. There are many reasons people sell their homes, and there are often opportunities for homebuyers who purchase properties in less popular areas.
You don’t have to wait until you’re seriously considering a home to check out its surroundings, said Bill Samuel of Blue Ladder Development in Chicago.
“I think you should always try to get to know your neighbors before buying any house,” he said. “So try to run into them during one of your tours of the home and ask them about the area.”
Visit the neighborhood at various times
“Try visiting during lunchtime, early in the morning, and even show up in the neighborhood playground with your kid or the local park on the weekend,” suggests Julie Ann Ensomo, who blogs about motherhood. “That way you can see and feel the vibe of the place.”
Visiting the area at night can help you tell if a neighborhood is safe. You can get a sense of whether the neighborhood seems desolate after dark, whether there are sufficient streetlights, and a general feeling of whether it seems safe.
Ensomo also recommends talking to neighbors and business owners about their experiences in the area.
If you’re a parent, or if you plan to become a parent, you may want to buy in a neighborhood with other children nearby. It’s nice to know your children may have playmates nearby, and it may be easier to find family-friendly activities in areas with lots of kids.
Keep an eye out for community public events as well, said Colleen Clark, an attorney in Washington, D.C.
“You want to spot community public events such as garage sales, bake-offs, or barbecues, as people can only feel safe to hold those events with neighbors they can trust,” she said.
Moving to an area where neighbors gather regularly for social events can be especially appealing if you’re moving from another town or state and want to meet new people.
Step 4: Check for environmental hazards
When you go under contract on a property, home inspectors can check for radon, mold, lead, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that cause smog. But how do you gather data on environmental hazards when you’re just exploring an area and haven’t made an offer on a house yet?
Research the neighborhood to find out whether it was used for other purposes before residential homes were built. Was it an agricultural operation that used heavy pesticides? Is there a landfill nearby? Find out if there are any types of processing plants in the area and whether you should be concerned about them.
Residents of one neighborhood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, were temporarily forced from their homes recently when a fertilizer plant in the city caught fire, creating a risk for a deadly explosion.
It’s essential that you know what manufacturing and processing plants and potential hazards, if any, are in the neighborhood.
You can also find out the water quality in the area by searching the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) consumer confidence reports for your address. This is one overlooked way to tell if a neighborhood environment is safe for you and your family.
Step 5: If you have children, research schools and daycare
You want to ensure that your child receives the best possible education, care, and support when they’re not in the home.
You can start researching schools online, including with the website GreatSchools. This site ranks schools in an area and can give you a good start, though it doesn’t provide the full picture.
The rankings are based on testing, which is just one side of the coin. If there is a large population of students whose first language is not English, the school’s test scores may not reflect the value of the education it provides.
Or, if the school is a charter school that focuses on place-based learning, it may not show high results in structured tests but they may be giving the children cultural, historical, or geophysical foundations to succeed in life in a non-conforming way.
The best way to determine whether the educational offerings in an area will be good for your children is to look at online reviews, join local social media groups to connect with other parents, and schedule a meeting with the school administrators.
Ask the follow questions when researching local schools:
- How does the school support a special needs child?
- How will you communicate with me if my child is struggling?
- Do you provide mentors for younger children?
- What is your graduation rate?
- What safety protocols are in place to protect the students?
If you need child care, reach out to the local state- or county-sponsored child care resource. They will have a database of all licensed child care providers and can refer you to the best resource to meet your needs.
This department can also provide information on any complaints that have been filed against providers.
Once you have a shortlist of potential providers, call them directly to learn more about their offerings and experience and schedule an in-person meeting.
Questions to ask when vetting child care providers:
- Do you accept newborns?
- What is your sick policy?
- How often do you change diapers?
- Do you keep a log of feeding and diaper-changing?
- Do you have a live feed for parents to watch throughout the day?
- Will I receive updates throughout the day on my child’s progress and well-being?
- What type of educational toys do you have?
- Do you have any structure or schedule?
- What level of training do your employees have?
- Are all staff CPR-certified?
- Do you do background checks for all staff, not just teachers?
- How many smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are on the premises?
- What are your security and safety policies?
Knowing how to tell if a neighborhood is safe goes beyond crime statistics. Yes, understanding the crime risks is important. But it’s also important to account for traffic safety, environmental concerns, and whether there are safe, supportive educational environments for your children.
Looking at safety from all of these angles will help you make a confident decision about which house to buy and where you want to put down roots.