When it comes time to move to the suburbs, pick a town or settle in a new neighborhood, the checklist generally begins like this: Best school test scores. Most house for the money. Shortest commute.
There’s another way to do this, however, that may yield more happiness for less money. Call it a values audit.
This checklist includes scouting the drop-off zone at neighborhood schools, eavesdropping shamelessly, figuring out where people swim in the summer, scanning the community’s bookshelves and pestering the local psychologist. The object is to figure out what a community really stands for and whether you would want to be friends with any of the people who live there.
Not every real estate agent provides that sort of information. Specialists in a single area don’t have much incentive to offer the warts-and-all download, or they may fear being accused of violating federal law that forbids steering buyers based on race.
But the questions are about shared values and how community-minded the residents are. So the answers will have to come from people who have been there (and perhaps left), and experts like Alison Bernstein, who has built a business called Suburban Jungle around guiding people to the places within commuting distance of New York City that would suit them best.
Many times each week, Bernstein hears comments from suburb shoppers about cars in the driveways being too nice or concerns about how dressed up the mothers are in the drop-off line at school. So, start there, with materialism. Then consider these other categories before you make what could be the biggest purchase of your life.
Online forums • Even the most local newspapers often have an online presence these days. Start reading them and keep reading them as you house hunt. “What seems to be the push of the power brokers in the community?” said Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College in Illinois and the author of “The High Price of Materialism.”
Is most of the coverage about economic growth? Or are most articles about the health of the community and parks and other services? What are readers saying when they comment on articles? Analyze the local parenting Web boards and email Listservs the same way.
In-person reconnaissance • Suburban Jungle claims neutrality on the answers to the many questions it puts to its customers, but it tries to ask provocative ones. “We park them in front of the nursery school at drop-off time to see who is going in and out,” Bernstein said. “Nannies? Dads? Working moms? How are they dressed? If it’s chicks in yoga pants and you want that, great. Just know what you’re getting into.”
Then, the high school - again, outside, since some towns won’t let you take tours without a signed contract to purchase a home in the community. Where are the students going when they leave? To team practice? To smoke cigarettes just off campus?
Now, a stroll down the street or over to the biggest park. “I’d probably want to see if I met anybody,” Kasser said. “Will people talk to you, or do they seem rushed?”
Next, the sidelines of the kiddie soccer games to overhear on purpose. “What dominates the conversation?” Bernstein said. “Politics? Work? SoulCycle? Baby sitters?”
Natives • What percentage of the people who live in a town or suburb grew up there? On one hand, a high number suggests that a community is attractive. On the other, they may form impenetrable cliques that make it hard to make new friends. Larger communities may have more transplants.
Libraries • Nearly every community has one. New arrivals are probably near the front. So what’s on the shelves? Is it a Piketty kind of place, or does it lean toward James Patterson? There’s nothing wrong with either type of reader, but you may want to spend the next couple of decades with ones more like you.
This same approach goes for people’s homes - and not just the ones for sale that have been staged within an inch of their lives. If you don’t know anyone in town, find a way to invite yourself to homes of friends of friends. What are they reading? Are there any books at all? What about books for the children?
The mayor • As a financial planner who specializes in counseling younger couples, Lisa Peterson helps plenty of people sort through the towns in the Boston area. The values audit appeals to her because she worries about clients who want only the best of everything for themselves and their offspring.
“If you’re chasing the best, you’ll be bankrupt before too long, and it makes for a miserable existence,” Peterson said.
She and her husband treated their eight-year search for the right suburb the way she would research a value stock — seeking one that wasn’t at the top of its game but had lots of potential. They found it in Salem, Mass., which even Bostonians often laugh off as a place to visit around Halloween and nothing more.
But Peterson was taken with the place. So she wrote to the mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, and asked her to sell her and her husband on Salem and explain the school district’s test scores. If Driscoll had not replied, or had passed the letter off to an aide, that would have spoken volumes. Instead, she wrote back and explained that average scores were not likely to rise much because of the community’s commitment to diversity and to teaching students for whom English is a second language. Any individual child’s education, however, wasn’t necessarily reflected in averages, the mayor reminded Peterson.
The couple was sold, and in 2011 they moved in. “Our biggest surprise,” Peterson said, “is how much we have loved it.”