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Until recently, researching a home purchase was simple. You’d walk around the neighbourhood, visit the nearest school and – if you were being thorough – arrange a home inspection. Today, Rightmove, Zillow and other online services provide access to a wealth of listings, advice and market data. But these services are just the start. With a few keystrokes, you can create a detailed picture of your country, your city and your new home. That information can help you make better buying decisions, avoid common problems and reduce the risk of fraud.

At the national level, bodies ranging from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (unodc.org) to the World Economic Forum (weforum.org) rate countries on several scales, including human capital, where Switzerland is first, and homicide, where Honduras recorded 90.4 murders per 100,000 people. Singapore, on the other hand, had just 0.2 homicides per 100,000 in 2012.

There are also indices for special interests. Help Age (helpage.org) ranks countries on how they treat their elderly, which may be useful if you are searching for a retirement destination. Denmark and New Zealand, meanwhile, ranked the best in the most recent survey by Transparency International (transparency.org) on citizens’ perceptions of corruption.

When you are ready to pick a city, the Economist Intelligence Unit (eiu.com) produces an annual liveability index that considers stability, the environment, culture, access to education and other factors for cities around the globe. Annual surveys by Mercer (mercer.com) rank the cost of living for expatriates in more than 200 cities.

Inevitably, though, surveys are biased. Culture, for example, could mean Banksy or Beethoven. To facilitate comparisons, in May 2014 the International Organisation for Standardisation published “ISO 37120”, a framework for measuring the performance of urban services and the quality of life in cities. London, Rotterdam, Shanghai, Dubai, Chicago, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires, among others, have adopted the standard, which compares metropolitan areas using 46 different indicators. The Urban Observatory (urbanobservatory.org) employs interactive maps to make side-by-side comparisons of 50 major cities on metrics including population density and noise levels.

Local governments are becoming more transparent, making it easier to evaluate cities and neighbourhoods. Helsinki (hri.fi) is a leader in the open data movement, publishing more than 1,000 sets of raw data on topics such as childcare and local travel times.

The Finnish capital also stages competitions to encourage developers to create apps with public-sector data. Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles (healthyplan.la) features interactive maps with detailed information on demographics, transportation, food, crime and housing stock for 35 districts. Meanwhile, Amsterdam (maps.amsterdam.nl) uses Google Maps to show the locations of everything from playgrounds to protected fauna.

Historical information, such as the maps created by the Bomb Sight Project (bombsight.org) that show where second world war bombs landed in London, can help avoid archaeological digs that might otherwise add months and additional cost to a building project.

Internet research can also highlight environmental issues. The US Environmental Protection Agency (epa.gov) maintains lists of places that are known to be contaminated. While these locations are often former industrial facilities, individual homes can also be toxic. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (justice.gov/dea), for example, operates a nationwide registry of thousands of dwellings that have been used as illegal methamphetamine labs. Often tainted with chemical residue, these homes can require extensive remediation before they are safe to inhabit. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (rcmp-grc.gc.ca) maintains a national list of former meth labs and marijuana farms, which can also be costly to reinstate.

Unfortunately, not all contaminated homes are catalogued online. During the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, more than 1,000 houses in the suburbs of Canberra, Australia, were insulated with loose-fill asbestos, a known carcinogen. Due to poor record-keeping by the contractor who installed the insulation, there isn’t a central registry of affected homes.

Problems affecting entire neighbourhoods, however, can often be uncovered with an internet search. Start by looking up the home’s address and the names of the subdivision or building, the previous owner, the developer and the builder, along with common problems such as fire, flooding, subsidence, leaks, mould, lead paint, plastic pipe and condominium assessments. In many markets, you can check your agent and lawyer’s credentials with the local real estate board and bar association. Anyone buying off-plan should investigate the developer’s previous projects and financial and managerial resources.

Beyond a simple internet search, local newspapers are a useful source of information because major problems usually generate media coverage. In many – but not all – jurisdictions, real estate agents are required to advise buyers if there has been a death in a home. You can also check on this using diedinhouse.com.

Google Scholar (scholar.google.com), a search engine that specialises in academic research, is a useful source of technical information such as the relationship between aircraft noise and heart disease and stroke. Beyond that lies the “deep web” – information that is not indexed by conventional search engines. Through the deep web, which is estimated to be several thousand times larger than the surface web, you can find court records, scientific information and other specialist data. You can access the deep web through Infomine (infomine.ucr.edu).

These resources enlarge what can be found out about an area by walking around the neighbourhood and speaking to residents and shopkeepers. Together the two provide insider knowledge.

Christopher Dillon is the author of ‘Landed Global’ (Dillon Communications, £27)

Illustration by Neil Webb

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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