Homework, homework, homework. It is an important part of any corporate relocation. Don't know the area you are moving to? Then you better do your homework.
Some homework can be done at home with a good map and the internet. With the help of real estate websites like realtor.com, zillow, and hotpads, you can get a feel for the housing that is available in certain areas, as well as the pricing. You will quickly find out if that new township that everyone is flocking to has any affordable older homes, or if its inventory is strictly limited to the brand new McMansions that are well out of your price range. Looking for older homes with character? You can find that out, too.
But eventually, boots have to hit the ground.
We spent our first weekend in Pittsburgh recently, just perusing the area without a realtor. This is a VERY important step in the relocation process for several reasons:
1.) A realtor will show you lovely homes, but they probably won't show you the traffic patterns near that house. For example, they're not going to show you how it's nearly impossible to get out of your own driveway during rush hour traffic or backups at the tunnel. They'll take you for a visit during a quiet part of the day. They are in the business of selling houses, after all.
2.) A realtor will get to know you on a superficial level, but they may not know the things that really matter to you. Does the town have a fantastic or mediocre library? How are the coffee shops? Are the locals friendly? Are the parks dog-friendly? Any nearby farmer's markets? These are things that you'll have to find out for yourself. It's a good idea to park the car, get out and walk around the town. Have a coffee with the locals. Try the Greek restaurant. Pop into the needle art shop. You will quickly get a vibe for the place.
3.) Everyone has a different definition of "town". We found that out quickly. What one person calls "town" can consist of a few strip malls and subdivisions gathered around a certain zip code. Someone else may think of "town" as the business district where all of the shops and restaurants are congregated. Still, others may take a broad view of town, including the architecture of the homes in the neighborhood, the condition of the schools, the accessibility to public transportation.
4.) Finally, houses often appear much prettier in photos and online listings than the do in person. Google Earth and Street View can only tell you so much. It cannot tell you if the house has a snarling rottweiler next door who barks at all hours, and you probably won't spot any photos of the junkyard auto hoarder who will be your new neighbor.
Here are a few photos from one of the towns we visited last weekend: