Keeping It Real – NabeWise Founder Ann Montgomery Talks Neighborhoods

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Ann Montgomery, Co-founder and CEO of NabeWise.

As you might have noticed (if you’ve been paying any attention at all) we Krrb folk are obsessed with the whole idea of neighborhoods and how to live a more sustainable and meaningful life within them. “Be neighborly” is our mantra, our modus operendi, our two word philosophy. So imagine our delight when we discovered NabeWise, a website that is 100% dedicated to matching up people with their ideal ‘hood.

Recognizing a true kindred spirit when we saw one, we just had to get together with Ann Montgomery, the site’s co founder and CEO. Her work experience as a corporate researcher (Glocap) and marketing consultant (Flavorpill), plus the fact that she herself has moved an incredible number of times (35, to be exact!) makes her founding of NabeWise a natural next step. Frustrated by the seemingly endless amount of legwork that has to be done in the search for the perfect neighborhood, Ann decided that what the world needed was an accurate picture of what life is really like in various spots.

NabeWise allows you to understand any neighborhood as if you’ve already lived there, so you can explore the world on a local level, discover new places, and find the neighborhoods that are right for you.

You can’t really get more expert than that! So we decided to pepper Ann with questions about her motivation behind founding NabeWise, and how we can all start to think more clearly about what kind of location best suits our dreams and realities, when it comes to settling down in just the right neck of the woods.

First off… 35 times??? Why on earth did you move so much? And did you set yourself up completely each time, or did you start to see each place as a campsite, just waiting to be broken down for the next move?

My family just moved a lot, for no real reason in particular. When you grow up that way, it’s easy to keep moving without even realizing it. For me, moving is like spring-cleaning. It’s a fresh start and a way of exploring.

I usually don’t fully decorate my place. I live very simply, I don’t collect a lot of things, and there’s not a lot of art on the walls. I have been feeling a little extra “nesty” lately though, so maybe I will settle down, who knows… Moving isn’t a religion of mine, I just love exploring new places.

Does this personal history have anything to do with your current occupation? ;-)

When I moved to the NYC area I had a tough time re-creating my lifestyle. In particular, I love the outdoors and I struggled to find a place that fit me. I spent a month driving around all the commuter towns 30 minutes outside of NYC. I mapped each town’s character and amenities trying to find a place that felt like home. Once the spreadsheet was getting out of control, I realized that no one was mapping neighborhoods for consumers. There was lots of data out there, but most of it had no meaning for people who wanted to know what it’s like to live in a certain area. This is when I had the idea for NabeWise.

What would you say are the top 5 questions everyone should ask themselves before moving to a new neighborhood or city?

Selecting a neighborhood is one of the most personal decisions people ever make. For a place to feel like home it needs to match your lifestyle, values, and your identity. I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all solution here.

People should make a list of their dream neighborhood characteristics – and I recommend trying to go beyond the typical types of location data you see on real estate websites.

For example, people will often say they want a “safe neighborhood” with “good schools,” that’s “family-friendly.” But try to go beyond that – really think about what kind of lifestyle you want and what your dream is.

Do you want a tight-knit community where the neighbors all know each other, or do you prefer a neighborhood where people do their own thing? A friend of mine lives in a family-friendly neighborhood where they have a block party at least once a month and everyone knows everyone. A lot of his life is spent relaxing with his neighbors. Why not paint the dream beyond just a bland catch phrase like “family-friendly.”

What activities do you want to do regularly? One of my favorite neighborhoods had a public library, a lap pool, access to 26 miles of bike trails, a movie theater, and was 15 minutes to the center of Washington, DC by metro, where I could find all kinds of activities.

A good recent article was written by Tara-Nicholle Nelson, a well-known voice in the Real Estate space. It talks about the things you need to know before moving into a new neighborhood. Some great advice and resources are mentioned there, including NabeWise.

Does politics play a part? Should it?

It depends on the person. Typically people feel more at home in a place that is at least open to their political orientation, but there is no right answer for everyone. That said, if you are interested in political orientation, here’s a link to a fun map of local campaign contributions data.

Urban vs. Suburb vs Rural… what to consider? We’re split …

Again, definitely depends on the person, but I’d recommend digging beyond the surface of urban vs. suburban vs. rural – do you want a gritty feel, a high-end feel, a creative/artistic feel, an industrial feel? There are so many different kinds of neighborhoods in all three of these settings that you can find one that matches exactly what you love.

the middle of nowhere

Do we want to live in a place like this? Photo by hockadilly on Flickr

brooklyn heights

...Or like this? Hmmmmmmm... Photo by lumierefl on Flickr.

How do we figure out the safety situation?

Safety is a tricky one, because the data is pretty bad in a lot of places. I spent a long time analyzing the safety data that is on a lot of real estate websites, only to discover that it really differed from conventional wisdom. At NabeWise we were the first to display neighborhoods ranked according to this safety data, which really made it obvious how backwards the data was. It showed things like the West Village having more murders and rapes than anywhere in Brooklyn and the Bronx. We got emails daily that the data was wrong.

After talking with some safety experts, it turns out there is a big problem with the way crimes are reported. If an area is under political pressure to reduce crime, or if there are resource constraints, then crimes may not be properly or consistently reported.

As a result, we ask locals to rate how safe they feel their neighborhood is. Still not a perfect approach, but we’ve found local wisdom goes a long way towards getting an accurate answer on safety.

What if we have kids? Are there different things to consider for different ages?

One interesting thing we realized here is that there are at least two stages of family neighborhoods – family nabes where kids are under 5 and not in school yet, and then family nabes where the schools are good and thus there are older kids. Hoboken, NJ is a neighborhood with a lot of young families, but because the schools aren’t great many families move out to the suburbs when their kids hit 5.

How do we figure out if the neighborhood is economically stable?

The relative wealth can be determined by income-levels and real estate values in the area. How the area is trending can be determined through trends in real estate values. We also have several crowd-sourced scores for whether a neighborhood is trending up, down or if it’s stable.

Gentrification. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Or both?

Totally a matter of opinion – and one that is often addressed with an almost religious fervor. At NabeWise we don’t judge, we just try to help reveal what locals think. We just started tracking whether or not people believe a neighborhood is undergoing gentrification. Should lead to some interesting infographics soon!

Should you have a job before you move?

Depends how much money is in your bank account. Dominique Strauss-Kahn who just rented a $50,000/month apartment in Tribeca might be in between jobs, but he’s probably doing fine, at least financially. Seriously though, having a job clearly helps, especially in expensive cities like New York. The trend we’re seeing on NabeWise is that people tend to search for neighborhoods that match their specific situation.

Students, for example, can’t always take on a job in addition to their school workload. So they tend to seek out student-friendly neighborhoods where the rents are not as high and the nightlife scene is boisterous, but cheap. That’s what the NabeFinder is for. It matches people’s unique situations to neighborhoods.

How big a factor is cost of living?

Huge. When you’re moving, considering not only the price of the actual property, but also the price of everything else in the neighborhoods is paramount. You may be able to afford your rent, but when you go to the local bar and your $20 buys you one small drink then you may not have as much fun as you would in another nabe. So check out how much things cost in the neighborhoods as well.

But, if your heart is set on a specific neighborhood that’s outside our budget, then you could get creative to make your dream of living there come true. One of my favorite examples of this is Felice Cohen’s 90 square foot apartment in the Upper West Side for $700/month. (http://ny.curbed.com/tags/felice-cohen)

Rent vs. buy?

A great heat map for this question was just put out by Trulia.

If we buy, will we make money once we sell in the future?

Depends entirely on when you buy, what you buy and where you buy it. Buying an investment property vs. buying a home for yourself are two very different decisions, which lead to different consequences in terms of making money in the future.

If you’re buying a property as an investment, you have to consider the neighborhood/town. Pay close attention to how people perceive it and how much value they place on the neighborhood/town of the property. These same people are your potential future buyers, and as they say: location is everything. That’s where we can help, since NabeWise aggregates what locals think about their neighborhoods/towns.

So say I’ve done all this research and have one or two good potential places in mind. What next? Do we go check them out in person? And what kinds of things should we be looking for while we’re there?

Ideally, you’d save yourself all that time and do the research on NabeWise.com to give yourself a list of neighborhoods that match your unique lifestyle and practical needs. This way, you only have to explore a few places, and have a targeted list of places to visit in person. Then, when you wander around neighborhoods, you’re not wasting time exploring places that don’t fit who you are. A single 20-something year old dude doesn’t want to end up in the land of strollers.

One common mistake is not checking out the noise level at different times in the day. God forbid you should rent a place right above a secret nightlife hotspot – unless of course, you are the kind of person that would be out at night at that time anyway, in which case, it might be the perfect place for you.

You’ve lived a lot of places, which one was/is your favorite? Why?

I really loved the DC area and in particular, I loved living in Virginia Square, which is the neighborhood I mentioned earlier. It was the perfect balance of outdoors and urban living for me at that time. I wouldn’t live there today though. My preferences have evolved and now I am looking for a place with a more creative vibe and more diversity.

Thanks so much Ann for your insightful answers. We’ve really enjoyed starting this conversation with you and look forward to continuing it in the future!

 
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