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BUYING A HOME? TIME TO PUT GOOGLE TO WORK

Most people do a little research on communities when they're looking for a home to buy. Some people become full-on private eyes.

However much effort you decide to put into your home search, researching a community is an important part of the buying process.

"The Internet is so full of information," said Mary Davis, owner of a River Edge, N.J., agency. "People are pretty savvy now - they have a lot of information when they walk in the door."

Davis and other agents say there are a few basic areas that buyers usually research: neighborhood feel, schools, crime and transportation.

Neighborhood feel

The census has a wealth of information on communities, listed under American Fact Finder at factfinder.census.gov. Punch in a town or a ZIP code and you can find breakdowns by income, marital status, race and educational background. You can see what percentage of homes are occupied by renters versus owners and how long it takes people to get to work.

When looking at a specific property, you can find property tax information and the assessed value of the home through the county tax appraisers office. For properties in Pinellas, the Web site is pcpao.org; for Hillsborough, it's hcpafl.org; and for Pasco, go to appraiser.pascogov.com.

Crime

An easy way to get an idea for crime in an area is to turn to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report. Go to fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm and click on 2007, the most recent year total data is available. On that page there is a frequently asked question marked "How many crimes came to the attention of law enforcement in my city?" Click on that, then go to your state, where the list of municipalities will come up.

Transportation

With no subway or rail system linking Tampa Bay communities, most residents get around by car or bus. Pinellas County is served by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, online at psta.org. The site offers details about schedules and fares, plus information about services for those with disabilities. In Hillsborough, check the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority site at hartline.org, and in Pasco, go to pascocountyfl.net and search for "pcpt" for the Pasco County Public Transportation page.

Schools

In Florida, the place to start is the state's accountability Web site, schoolgrades.fldoe.org. This site compares schools statewide. It also shows the letter grade awarded by the state for the past 10 years, the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch and the percentage of minority students. The Adequate Yearly Progress report, also on this site, shows the percentage of students on track to be proficient in math and reading. The Florida Department of Education home page, fldoe.org, offers items such as high school graduation rates and state-supported initiatives like Bright Futures.

GreatSchools.net offers a broad look at schools in a particular community. The site's "Choose the Right School" link takes you to a page that outlines things to consider as you choose a school and a geographical search.

But there is no substitute for visiting a school.

"If I'm going to move into an area, I want to get a firsthand feeling of what it's like," says superintendant Raymond Bandlow of Fort Lee, N.J. "... Is it a warm place? Is it a welcoming place? All these things are important."

Contributing: The Record

Home-buying tips

If you're looking to move to a new neighborhood, it pays to do your homework. Here are some helpful Web sites:

Neighborhood feel: zillow.com, maps.google.com, factfinder.census.gov.

Property appraiser sites: pcpao.org (Pinellas); hcpafl.org (Hillsborough); appraiser.pascogov.com (Pasco).

Public transportation: psta.org (Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority); hartline.org (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority); pascocountyfl.net (search "pcpt" for the Pasco County Public Transportation page).

Schools: schoolgrades.fldoe.org and fldoe.org (state education sites); pcsb.org (Pinellas); sdhc.k12.fl.us (Hillsborough); pasco.k12.fl.us (Pasco).

Crime: fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm (Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report); fdle.state.fl.us (Florida Department of Law Enforcement).

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