Top 10 Warning Signs to Watch for When Choosing a Town

About what?

photo credit: mikecogh

We’ve now had two rounds of house buying–one in Maine and one in New Hampshire–and as a result we’ve visited a lot of towns and seen a lot of houses.  During our home searches, we began a mental checklist of items in a town that were warning signs to us.  For those looking to move to another town, or even from out-of-state, we hope this list can help you in your search.

10.  Non-Existent Library Hours

Most towns have beautiful, old library buildings.  The problem is that they are rarely open anymore.  When they are open the hours are inconvenient.  This is also an indirect sign of town involvement–a healthy library is a healthy town.  Be sure to swing by the library to check the hours.

9.  Not-for-Profit Housing

A new trend we’ve seen is that not-for-profits are getting into the land-lording business–often backed by government grants.  While their goal of providing “affordable housing” is laudable, they take the absentee land-lord problem to a new level.

In a circular fashion, they often invest in areas that don’t have an affordable housing problem.  The problem for you however, is that you don’t always notice them as they attempt to blend into a neighborhood.  The only tell-tale sign is, literally, the sign(s) posted outside (but not always easily spotted with a single drive-by).

In fact, one home we almost put an offer on in Maine was just across a small stream from one of these complexes.  It wasn’t until a Google Map search that I noticed how large the complex was.  So we made it a point to drive through it and that’s when we realized what it was.

8.  Nursing Homes Located Downtown

In a misguided attempt to revamp their downtown, towns have refurbished old buildings into nursing homes.  There are two problems with this.  First, they are often run by not-for-profits who are exempt from local property taxes.  This raises taxes for everyone else.  Secondly, nursing homes are islands unto themselves which do not add to the vibrancy of the downtown.

7. Churches in Downtown Storefronts

Nothing against churches since we believe they are vital to the social fabric of any healthy community.  That being said, a church located in a downtown storefront is not a sign of healthy community.  What it says is that there is no demand for retail downtown.  Churches, who don’t have anything to retail (at least not of this world), usually aren’t going to be able to compete for downtown retail space.  So, their presence means there are no others bidders.

6.  Tumbleweeds in the Town Common/Downtown at 2pm

Any good realtor will tell you to drive by your house of interest during various times of the day to judge your immediate neighbors . . . so why wouldn’t you do the same thing for the town you’re about to move to?  In the mid-afternoon you can see how vibrant a town is–there should be school children safely walking the street and smartly-dressed business folks rushing to meetings.

5.  Public Playground is Older Than You Are

This is becoming more of an issue in Northern New England where literally whole towns are becoming nursing homes.  The local economy is in shambles so all the young families have moved away in search of good jobs.  A public playground that saw its best days in the 1970s is a sign that all is not well.

We’ve seen one case where the older residents were openly hostile to having kids playing on the common.  They wanted them banished to a less public site so that they could enjoy the solitude of the common as it was back in the good’ol days.

4.  Asphalt Curbing Instead of Granite

In the snowy, winter climate in Northern New England, the snow-plows are a necessary evil.  Granite curbing is clearly the go-to choice when faced with an errant snow-plow.  Yet, more and more towns are going with a cheaper alternative–asphalt curbing.  In just a few seasons, the asphalt is gouged and crumbling.

Yet, the reason for making this choice is obvious–money.  The town is probably dealing with a shrinking tax base and must make cuts in services.  So, the downward spiral begins with asphalt curbing.

3.  New School(s) Built Far From Downtown

Everyone wants their children to get the best education possible, but surely not at the expense of their community’s social fabric.  Schools, once upon a time, were built right into neighborhoods.  Children could safely walk the few blocks home, or even downtown for an afternoon refreshment.  Now they spend their time waiting for parents to pick them up or riding on a school bus.

Also, new schools are expensive and land-intensive which raises property taxes in the former and takes developable land out of the tax base in the latter.

2.  Asphalt Patches on Sidewalks

In an advanced state of decline, towns defer some types of maintenance altogether.  To keep some semblance of functional sidewalks, asphalt patches are applied over deteriorating sidewalks which are usually made of superior materials such as brick or concrete.  We’ve even seen entire sidewalks paved like a road with asphalt over existing sidewalks.  Of course, most of this is pointless as the asphalt soon gives way and walking in the street is preferable to walking on the sidewalk.

1.  The Town Hall is the Nicest Building in Town

To understand why this is the number one warning sign you have to understand the economic history of towns in Northern New England.  At one time, private enterprise was strong and towns prospered.  Now, unable to compete for one reason or another, the private sector has shrunk dramatically leaving a growing property tax burden in its wake.

Town leaders have one of two options: 1) Feather their bed and pretend nothing is wrong or 2) resist the urge to raise taxes while finding new ways to jumpstart the economy.  Towns that have chosen option 1 identify themselves through displays of public sector opulence.  The Town Hall, naturally, is a prime candidate for such displays.  In such towns, expect high and rising property taxes and indifferent town management.

Anyone care to make any additions to this list?

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