Sunday, August 15, 2004
Be a Sherlock: Detailed data is just a click away
Web sleuthing is a home buyer's best friend
The latest from The Ticker blog
With an Internet connection and about half an hour, you can learn a lot about your neighbors and your neighborhood - or the one you're thinking of moving to.
Government agencies have become more tech-savvy, private companies have technology to show off and consumers are learning to expect better access to public information. The result is a wide variety of Web sites that can tell you more about an area than perhaps you want to know -- everything from average home prices to local toxic waste.
Oh, and it's all free.
If you're looking to move to the area or just within it, you can learn only so much by driving around. And when you do find your dream house, you'll want to rely on more than what the seller tells you ("Great area! Super schools!").
If you haven't decided on a neighborhood yet, a good first stop is Community Close-Up at HomeStore.com.
Wondering if you'd prefer living in 24015 or 24019? Community Close-Up is designed to tell you how well your new ZIP code stacks up against your old one, but it's just as good for comparing two areas. Enter 24015 and 24019, for example, and you can see the ages, income and education of the people living there to see if they're folks like you.
If you have kids, you'll probably want to check the neighborhood schools. Monstermoving.com, which also has lots of other useful links and calculators, offers school reports for every school in every city in the country. Enter Roanoke (or Salem, or Bedford, or whatever), click View All Schools, and you can see a list of every elementary, middle and high school in the area.
A quick glance at the list will tell you the overall quality - "Below Average," "Average," "Above Average" or "High" - which is usually all you need to know. For those who like the nitty-gritty, click on the Full Report button to get a list of a couple of dozen details about the school, including student-teacher ratio, how many computers there are and whether parents get progress reports. (The data are updated quarterly by On Board, which compiles information from more than 89,000 public and private schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.)
All the kids in Lake Wobegon might be above average, but all the schools here aren’t, so before you believe a house-seller’s hype, check to see if the local schools really do make the grade.
Garbage in, garbage out
One of the more startling reports you can get about your neighborhood — in fact, your individual street — comes from the Environmental Protection Agency. Every business that is going to do something with some kind of environmental hazard — produce it, handle it, dump it or emit it — needs to register with the EPA. Some are obvious when you think about it, and they shouldn’t worry you: Dry cleaners use chemicals every day, and Jiffy Lube has to do something with all the used oil.
Still, it’s one thing to have a dry cleaner down the block. It’s another to find that a building around the corner has a license to dump thousands of pounds of trimethylbenzene into the air.
The EPA makes all this information available to the public, and it’s done in a slick format. The agency’s EnviroMapper lets you enter a ZIP code, then displays a street map of the area with registered polluters shown as color-coded squares. You can see Superfund sites, toxic releases, water dischargers, nasty air emitters, hazardous waste generators or the rather creepy "Multi-activities" sites. (Don’t jump when you see it. Remember that gas stations, dry cleaners and even 7-Elevens are all likely registered with the EPA as "small-quantity generators" of hazardous waste.)
Choose "Hazardous Waste" from the list, then choose "Identify" and click on one of the green dots. You’ll get the name of the facility — for example, Sherwin-Williams Co. — which you can click on for more details. (In this example, it’s not surprising that a paint store is registered to have hazardous waste.)
Home, sweet home
If you want to get even more specific — perhaps you’re looking for data on a particular house — you want to turn to your local Geographic Information System. (Not every community has one online. Roanoke does. Salem, Blacksburg and several other local communities do as well, although Roanoke County does not.)
A local GIS can tell you a lot. You can zoom in on an area and see where fire hydrants are, where sewer lines run, what’s in a flood zone and more, including the size and shape of individual lots.
You can also look up details about a particular location. Click on "Search/Query" and enter an address, a tax ID (which you can get from the map) or an owner’s name.
A search on Ralph Smith, for example, will turn up listings for 21 properties — those owned by "Ralph Smith," "Ralph K Smith," and "Ralph Smith Inc.," including the former Roanoke mayor's mansion on Mill Mountain.
Choose a property (e.g., the mansion) and you can see all the details: who owns it, what it’s assessed for ($786,000), what he bought it for ($605,000 in 1992), who put up the money (William and Danielle Rand), how big it is (5,715 square feet, including 15 rooms and an unfinished basement), its construction (stone) and even a recent photo.
Although it might be fun to check out the former mayor’s house, a more useful way to use your local GIS is to pull up information on the house you want to buy. Knowing the assessed value and what the seller paid for it can help in your negotiations. And some GIS sites, including Roanoke's, offer a handy "Adjoining Parcels" button. Knowing if your potential neighbor has obtained a permit for a 100-foot Jolly Roger flag might be good to know.
Permit me . . .
Although Roanoke County doesn’t have an online GIS, it does having something most other areas don’t: a way to browse through building-permit requests.
Sometimes some new work is obvious; there might be a sign reading "Future Home of the Central Valley Shopping Center." But not everyone advertises what they’re up to, although they do have to file for a permit.
Browsing through those requests can be an education — in bureaucracy and urban planning if nothing else. Unfortunately, there’s no way to search via a map, but you can sort the list by project or owner’s name and browse. (Often the project name is the name of the subdivision, which can be helpful if you’re living or looking in one.)
Most of the projects are mundane; you’ll find parking lot expansions, new subdivisions and the like. Some are more interesting, like Kroger’s "Concept Plan for Fuel Center" for its new store near Tanglewood. Others might indicate a change to traffic patterns, like Roanoke Airport Business Park’s "Private Road Construction and waterline relocation." You never know what you’ll find, but chances are the builders don’t expect you to find it.
As far as governments go the Web is still a relatively new thing, so you can expect to see more useful information appearing in the future. For now, though, there’s a wealth of data out there, just a click or two away.