Choosing a New Neighborhood

by | Mar 1, 2024 | 0 comments

  • Kenyon

There is a big orange cat that thinks of my overgrown backyard as his living room (and kitchen). One of my neighbors keeps the door to his garage cracked open so the cat can come and go as he pleases and sleep in the rafters whenever he wants. While the cat has no idea that we would take up golf clubs and torches to defend him against any human who tried to do him harm, he treats us with healthy levels of suspicion.

Another one of my neighbors has his house festooned with security cameras, a sign in his yard admonishing folks to make sure their garages are locked after dark, and reposts police department press releases on social media. Personally, I am not always 100% comfortable having my pride flag out front. The four of us all live together in the same neighborhood, and we have very different experiences of safety.

Is This a Safe Neighborhood? 

As a real estate agent who has been selling homes full-time for more than 10 years, I talk with people about their dream homes almost daily. One thing that almost never comes up in these conversations: Safety. I don’t think it is because people are disinterested, but that security is intrinsic to “home,” it is a part of what separates a place from a home. It is understood that we want the places we sleep, and leave our belongings to be safe.

Conversations about safety usually come up when I am showing a house to a client, and not just the ones like the showing I did a little over a year ago, in Dane County, where my clients and I walked into a home full of Nazi, Confederate, and KKK pride(?) paraphernalia(?). Generally when folks find a house they like, one of the first things they will ask me is, “Is this a safe neighborhood?”

Some risks are easy to mitigate. The loss of belongings, through damage, theft, or loss can easily be managed with various insurance products. The concerns first-time buyers express when they are pouring their entire nest-egg into a downpayment, and may literally have no resources to make repairs in the first year if a major appliance breaks, can typically be covered with a home warranty. The fear of loss from an mishandled aspect of a complicated transaction, or an issue a buyer or seller doesn’t even know to consider, can be reduced by hiring competent professional help.

But these are not the existential risks that most folks are worried about when they ask, “Is this a safe neighborhood?” It is fair to believe that folks are asking if they will be free from violence. For queer folks, the question of safety takes on additional dimensions: “Will I be able to express myself? Will I be seen and valued, or just tolerated? Will I be targeted for my identity here? Will I have to listen to a rich, white, straight, cis man sing ‘Fast Car?’” Everyone has their own standard.

Will I Feel Safe Here? 

We can turn to data, we can look at police reports, at voting trends, at average household income, or anything else that one might imagine would have an impact on crime and violence. This will give us an approximation of an objective picture of the relative safety of a neighborhood. It still won’t answer the real question. Usually the real question is, “Will I feel like I am safe here?”

Our desire to feel safe will often override our need for actual safety. I’ve seen people buy houses in neighborhoods with objectively higher crime rates rather than in areas with lower crime rates because they say they feel safer in the former neighborhoods. I’ve had queer clients refuse to buy a house on a block with a “politically vociferous” neighbor, and another queer client buy a house on that same block.

Some queer folks tell me that more expensive neighborhoods feel less safe to them. Some folks are afraid an HOA board member will make their lives miserable because they are queer. The cat in my yard is absolutely safe from molestation by humans, but he doesn’t feel that this is the case. The words of my therapist explaining my first marriage resonate here: “What you grew up with feels safe and normal to you as an adult, even if it is neither.”

So I can’t answer the question, “Is this a safe neighborhood” directly, for the same reason almost any answer would be illegal; I don’t know what “safe” means to any particular person.

Take a Walk 

So what is a person considering a new home to do? Walk or roll through the neighborhood. Don’t just drive through, walk/roll it. Do it multiple times, at different times of the day. A neighborhood can feel different first thing in the morning, than it does in the middle of the day, than it does in the evening or in the middle of the night.

If you can, and I understand that the pace of real estate may not allow for it, walk/roll a neighborhood on different days of the week. Wednesday might feel different than Saturday. Pay attention to how you feel, how you are received by the people you meet, by the condition of the yards and the cars, by the noise, by the smells. Does it feel like home? Does it feel safe? Would you be happy to sleep there?

And be aware that the neighborhood might be doing what it can to repel or attract you as well. I once did a showing where the girls in the house next door had put a sign in their bedroom window that read “Babysitters live here.” I recently spoke with Vicki Kenyon, a newer REALTOR® in Madison who, along with other industry professionals, is hosting a series of discussions about housing safety for queer folks.

She told me a story about how when the neighbor of a friend put their house up for sale, her friend put out her pride flag in an effort to attract people who would be comfortable with a queer neighbor. The new neighbor later confided that they felt safe buying a house in the neighborhood because they had seen the pride flag next door. So many factors contribute to the feeling of safety and belonging. It’s worth taking the time to investigate.


Vivienne Andersen is a full-time REALTOR® with eXp Realty in Madison. She grew up in California, but is not at all what the Beach Boys had in mind. She serves on the Cultural Diversity in Housing Committee at the WRA, and blogs about the Madison Real Estate Market at VivienneAndersen.com.

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