How to Evaluate a Neighbourhood

When my wife and I were shopping around for our first house, we actually looked at a number of homes in three vastly different and far-flung neighbourhoods within the City of Toronto. Along with a checklist comparing the pros and cons of the various houses we looked at, we also came up with a list of the attributes – and potential downsides – of each neighbourhood. Here’s a list to help get you started on your hunt.

Commute time
Unless you’re fortunate enough to work from home, the length of time it will take you and your partner to get to and from work will be a key deciding factor. Of course, proximity to the subway and easy access to highways can also drive up the selling price. In the end, it comes down to balancing how much you can afford to spend with how much time you’re willing to sit stuck in traffic or squeezed onto an overcrowded bus.

But keep this anecdote in mind when weighing the pros and cons: a friend of mine once lived in a small condo a five-minute walk from his office. Then, with a baby on the way, he and his wife fell for the attraction of a big house on a big lot in the suburbs. But after living for a year with the hour-plus commute each way (at the best of times), they sold and moved back to a bungalow in the city.

For parents (or parents-to-be), the quality of local schools can be a make or break item on your neighbourhood-rating list. I know people who would only consider houses that were within a specific school catchment zone.

Aside from heard-it-through-the-grapevine recommendations and reputations, you can find a fair bit of info about specific schools online. The Ontario Ministry of Education, for example, has a database of all publicly funded elementary and high schools in the province, searchable by city, school board, school name, or postal code. Along with basic details about each school, the reports also include student average test scores and how they compare to the rest of the province, and student body population and demographic info.

Another option for school comparisons is the Fraser Institute, which rates elementary and high schools (on a scale of 1 to 10) in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, B.C., and the Yukon.

Neighbourhood vibe and amenities
This one’s hard to quantify, and is really dependent on your personal desires. Do you need the urban hustle-and-bustle of cafes and patios steps from your doorstep? Or would you prefer a more suburban vibe with large private lots and houses set well back from each other?
When comparing similar hoods, note the number and variety of shops, restaurants, and bars within walking distance, the number of parks and other public spaces, and the specific attractions that appeal to you.

Consider also the stage of life you’re in, and how long you realistically plan on staying in that house or neighbourhood. Being a short stumble from the city’s club district may seem ideal when you’re a 20-something; unbearable when you’re trying to get an infant to sleep on a raucous Saturday night.

While you can certainly get a deal by buying in an “up and coming” neighbourhood, you have to assess how long the “up” will take and whether or not you’ll be comfortable walking your local streets at night. Community papers usually have a crime beat section that can give you a cursory sense of how often homes are burglarized or purses snatched in a particular area.

For more specific details, try the local police department to see what stats they have. The Toronto Police Service, for example, has broken the city into 140 neighbourhoods, with a clickable map showing precisely which type of crimes were committed in each within the past month.

Property taxes
Keep in mind that if buying in a more-desirable location, you’ll not only spend more upfront on the house, your annual tax bill will also be higher. Each home’s property tax rate is based on its value compared to other recent nearby sales. When you start looking at multiple properties in the same area, look for the tax rate figures included on the selling sheets.

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