Check out that neighbourhood

House hunting
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The Independent Online
Juergen and Sharone Neuhoff wanted to move house, and who could blame them? Their neighbourhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico, suffered from several disadvantages, as far as the computer expert and his wife (both 43) were concerned. The heat in summer was intense and debilitating, poisonous scorpions would occasionally wander in from the Sierra (or the Mesa or whatever they have down there), and - from time to time - teenage gangs would shoot up the houses in the area, killing pensioners and children, if the mood so took them.

But where should one go to? When they had originally moved into their attractive bungalow, they were well aware of the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, but failed to predict the murderous behaviour of some of their neighbours. It was an ommission the Neuhoffs were determined not to repeat.

So they set to work on the Internet, cross-referencing crime statistics, educational facilities for their children and environmental considerations. Finally, when they had narrowed the choices down a bit, they sat down to watch their favoured new domicile on the Net, using a link to a camera set up by an Internet company in the town's main drag.

This was not a quiet hamlet in the American Lakes area, nor a Canadian backwater surrounded by the solemn majesty of Nature, nor yet the vibrant centre of one of Europe's safest cities, such as Siena or Venice. It was Colchester, in Essex. For nine months (a suitable gestation period) the Neuhoffs of New Mexico examined life, live, in Head Street. They saw (and, indeed, heard) the buses, the phone-boxes, the shoppers, the milkman, the postman and the pub. Old Mrs Evans was scrutinised as she pulled her trolley towards Superdrug; Trudy Tredwell was approved of as she parked the Range Rover with the labradors in the back, and dashed into the Royal Bank of Scotland for some weekend dosh; Fred Spurge caused no alarm as - whistling - he swept the fag-ends from the gutter.

But above all it was what the Neuhoffs did not see on their screen that brought them to Essex. "There were no muggers threatening people," said Mr Neuhoff, "nor gangs walking the streets. And we hardly ever saw a policeman." Thus reassured that social undesirables were rare in Colchester - and knowing more about the place than it knew about itself - the Neuhoffs moved in last August.

Such thoroughness makes good sense. Despite the size of the investment that buying a house represents, and despite the emotional and spiritual importance of the decision on where to live, few of us do much more than appraising the central heating system and damp proof coursing of a building in an area which we (a) are generally attracted to, and (b) can afford.

Increasingly, however, our fellow househunters are wising up to the folly of this approach. Yes, the living room has a wonderful ceiling rose, and the architraving is splendid, but did you know that the man at number 47 bays at the moon when it is full? Or that - between the hours of dusk and daylight - the street doubles up as a dog toilet? Or that the teeny shrub just planted by your elderly neighbour along the garden fence is in fact Cypressia leylandia, which will eventually grow to a height of over 50 feet?

For a few hundred pounds, I discovered this week, you can employ a man called John - an ex-policeman - to uncover such problems for you, before you sign that final contract. He or his partner, Len, will sit outside your dream house for several days and several nights in their G-reg Mondeo, observing everything while knocking back polystyrene cups full of strong, sweet tea. Between gulps John and Len will examine your putative neighbours for signs of psychosis, appraise passing kids for vandalistic tendencies, and report on the efficiency of the council's refuse collection. And if the local Neighbourhood Watch is working properly, presumably Len and John should expect to be harassed regularly by the police.

Frankly you'd be mad not to call them. But I wonder whether the principle shouldn't be extended by the prudent homeowner. I mean, we all know that the Neuhoffs have kept a good eye on us. But who in Colchester has checked out the Neuhoffs? All we really know about them is that they come from an inhospitable and violent place. Can we really be sure that they will not import bad American habits, such as shooting people in random acts of paranoid madness?

Actually I am sure that the Neuhoffs are kosher, but I am making a point here. Two months ago new people moved in across the street from us. The car was suspect, being old and having something like a pipe or a ladder permanently secured to its roof. But then again it it was a VW Beetle. There was a dog - bad. But there were two small children. Which was good, because parents of small children rarely hold loud parties (or, indeed, any parties). Their voices were a bit raucous (bad), but their first act was to put up window boxes full of nice flowers (very, very good).

So each act has, over time, been added together to form a total picture of these new neighbours, and their balance sheet is clearly in credit. But how much time and worry would have been saved had we simply put private detectives on their trail the very first day the removals van appeared. Frankly, this kind of thing is too important to leave to chance.