The Incredible Shrinking Neighborhood: Buyers Narrow Their Focus

realtor.com | November 01, 2016

By Audrey Brashich | Nov 1, 2016

Most home buyers dream of settling down in a great city or town, but a growing number of house hunters are setting their sights smaller. They are narrowing down their searches, in fact, not just to a neighborhood, but to a microneighborhood—a specific patch of properties located all on one strip, or even one block, with its own distinct identity and real estate cachet.

According to Realtors®, microneighborhoods are getting more attention than ever. Lists of the country’s “coolest microneighborhoods” have been rolled out in a variety of media outlets, highlighting the charms of Los Angeles’ Fairfax Avenue, Chicago’s East Fulton Market, Miami’s NW 2nd Avenue, and others. Meanwhile, New York is a microneighborhood microcosm, with New York magazine claiming: “Examine almost any area of Manhattan these days and you’ll find it balkanized into a set of breakaway microneighborhoods, each one proclaiming its unique character.”

And while there have always been blocks that are cooler than others, the preferences of a new generation of house hunters is giving them extra cachet.

“Microneighborhoods offer a new kind of bang for your buck,” says Benjamin Blakely, a Realtor with Keller Williams in northern Virginia. “It used to be about more property and the clubhouse, but today the real draw is immediate access to activities and community literally right outside your door.”

The new micro-American dream

So why, in an era of McMansions and big-box stores, are people fascinated with neighborhoods that have it all within a few blocks? Some say it’s a rebellion against long commutes and suburban sprawl. Others, including Justin Alexander of Halton Pardee + Partners in Venice, CA, point out that millennials’ preference for walkable neighborhoods means they want amenities within their immediate vicinity, no driving required.

Another reason living in a microneighborhood can be a great experience is that they’re environments where mom and pop operations can flourish due to a loyal local clientele, giving even retail transactions a neighborly feel. That’s exactly how Mark Kitching, a Realtor in Los Angeles, feels about Culver West, the microneighborhood he lives in that’s part of Culver City.

“We have the ability walk down the street and go to one of a handful of great restaurants where we know everybody and know the quality of what we’re going to get,” he says, “and we value that tremendously.”

How to find a micro-neighborhood near you:

Although there are microneighborhoods all over, you’re not likely to see them advertised in real estate listings as such. So how do you find them?

Step No. 1: Find a Realtor who really knows the area. Kitching also suggests scoping out places where there’s both natural charm to the architecture plus a small commercial strip that has a few cool offerings (think fair-trade coffee shop, artisanal bakery), with room for more.

Another tip: If you spot a Wal-Mart, Target, or Starbucks, you’re not in a microneighborhood. These communities abhor chain stores, so much so that when a Pinkberry opened up in 2007 on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, a microneighborhood in Venice, CA, residents boycotted it. The yogurt franchise store closed three years later.

“The restaurants, bars, and stores that residents choose to support helps them either become successful, or leaves them to go out of business,” explains Kitching.

In terms of walkability, that key feature of a microneighborhood, don’t rely on someone else’s assessment. According to Bob Gibbs, an urban planner who helps create new walkable neighborhoods and retrofit existing ones, the most successful microneighborhoods rely on urban planning metrics that actually date back as far the 1920s, when it was determined that a walkable neighborhood needed to have goods and services no farther than 1,200 feet—the distance that can be covered on foot in five minutes—from residential spaces. So, if a listing boasts its own mini Main Street, measure the distance and see if it’s an easy stroll.

But make no mistake, there is no one-size-fits-all microneighborhood. Whether you’ve found the right place for you depends largely on your own unique needs.

“Some microneighborhoods are anchored by a busy food market, while in others, life revolves around the dog park or a community garden,” explains Blakely. “Each one can have a different texture.” This is why it’s important to identify what you want—and what your neighbors might be into—rather than be dazzled by a block or two of cool boutiques.

Plus, the beauty of microneighborhoods is that since they’re so small, they can pop up almost overnight. Even just one or two attractions can get the ball rolling. You can even help build your own microneighborhood—which is what Kitching is doing in Culver West. Together with his wife, he’s opened a Pilates studio and a juice bar, and when spaces become available, he will actively work to bring in the kinds of services and stores he’d like to shop at and that fit in with the existing offerings. As Kitching explains, “We’re helping make this place what it is.”

Who knows? Maybe you’re sitting on your own mini patch of paradise already.

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