Brick rowhouses and sidewalk on Bond Street in Fells Point, Baltimore, Md. (Photo: Jon Bilous/Dreamstime/TNS).

When Dan Sondhelm moved from an apartment building where residents mostly ignored trash in the halls to a single-family home in Alexandria, Va., he didn’t expect the local neighborhood watch to take their duties quite so seriously.

“It was really organized,” Sondhelm says. “Those in charge for the week would clear still-on-the-driveway newspapers and still-on-the-street garbage cans, among other things, during the twice-a-day drive around the block.”

They’d also pay close attention to homes whose residents were on vacation, making sure that nothing was amiss at those properties. Nearly 20 years later, Sondhelm lives in the same house, and the neighborhood watch is still going strong.

“There’s a feeling that you’re all in this together and you all look out for each other,” Sondhelm says of his neighborhood.

When it comes to choosing a good neighborhood to live in, not all surprises are so positive. There’s a reason that real estate agents like to remind house hunters that they’re not only buying a house; they’re also buying a neighborhood.

Whether you’re buying your first home or looking to purchase an investment property, here’s everything you need to know about what to look for in a neighborhood.

How to find a good neighborhood
It’s easy to get caught up in looking for a home that checks off everything on your wishlist, but real estate experts say it’s more important to pay close attention to the neighborhood. After all, a house can be updated and fixed but you can’t change its location, the vibe of the community or your neighbors.

When figuring out how to find a good neighborhood, it boils down to one thing: research. And lots of it. Your real estate agent is a good resource for pointing out key amenities and learning about homeowners’ association rules, but you can’t rely on them for some specific information.

“Realtors have to be very careful not to say anything that might steer people into one neighborhood or another,” says Ronald Humes, a Realtor with HomeSelect Realty in Lexington, Kentucky. The federal Fair Housing Act, aimed at preventing housing discrimination, bars real estate professionals from discussing the racial or financial demographics of a community with their clients.

That said, you can find plenty of information on your own online. Websites like niche.com and neighborhoodscout.com are a great starting place for data about a specific area, including crime rates, income levels, demographics and school info.

Still wondering how to find a good neighborhood? Here are other factors to consider:

Crime rates
For many homebuyers, safety is top of mind when choosing a good neighborhood. A neighborhood with a low crime rate is not only safer, but can help keep property values afloat in the years to come.

How to check: Local law enforcement agencies typically track crime statistics, so that’s a good place to start. You also can visit websites such as CrimeReports and SpotCrime to look through curated crime. You might also run the address at the National Sex Offender Registry to see if there are sex offenders living nearby, and drive by at various times to check on traffic and noise.

School quality
Even if you don’t have children, buying a house in a community with good schools can be a smart investment, because future buyers may have children.

“Schools have a lot to do with the resale value of a home,” says Ken Pozek, a Realtor with Ken Pozek Group with Keller Williams Realty in Orlando. “Even if the schools aren’t A-rated or B-rated, you want to know that going in when you make the decision to buy.”

How to check: Go to the local school district’s website and download the report card of nearby schools. This will include information about the school’s demographics, test scores and graduation rates. Another resource: GreatSchools.org, which allows you to easily compare data between schools and read parents’ reviews.

Lifestyle
A couple starting a family will want different amenities in their ideal neighborhood than empty nesters looking for a slower pace of life. Pay attention to things like parks, open spaces, trails, proximity to shopping, dining and local attractions. If the community is a homeowners’ association, or HOA, find out what amenities are included in your dues, such as a pool, clubhouse or gym.

How to check: Again, the internet is your friend. WalkScore provides information about a neighborhood’s walkability and car-free access to restaurants, parks and other places of interest. Scan neighborhood Facebook groups, neighborhood websites like Nextdoor, community newspapers or the HOA’s website or newsletter to get a feel for the community’s vibe or any special events they host. New parents, for example, might check out baby-friendly programming at a library, while a marathoner might be interested in local running groups.

Pride of ownership
When the residents of a neighborhood truly care about their homes and their community it shows – and it creates a better place to live. A neighborhood that belongs to an HOA, for example, is more likely to have a consistent look because homeowners have to follow HOA guidelines. That said, a too-strict HOA might not be ideal if you want more freedom with your property.

How to check: You’ll get a sense of whether people are proud to live in a neighborhood simply by talking to them and asking what they like about the community. Beyond that, look at the time and money that they’re investing into their homes. Well-maintained homes with neatly landscaped lawns are a good sign that your future neighbors care about their properties (and will expect you to do the same).

“You want to be where people are investing in the community,” says Rebecca McCullough, a realtor with McEnearney Associates in Alexandria, Va.

By Beth Braverman, Bankrate.com. Visit Bankrate online at www.bankrate.com.