Most of the information that you need to get a feel for a new area can be found on the Internet. This article describes some of the websites that I use and discusses how they can be used by anyone considering relocation.
Getting an area's community profile including demographics, population growth, population density, housing starts, etc. is easy with State and County QuickFacts, a US Census Bureau web site. QuickFacts (quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/) gives you the most requested statistics for every county in the U.S. If you want more information then click on the data sets link at the bottom of the page.
Another source of community information is the local city or county web site. Most communities (even very small ones) now have a web presence. This might be the only place on the net where you can find information about local regulations, taxes, building permits, etc. I would recommend doing a Google search (www.google.com) on the name of the town and look for an official-looking site. There is a push to standardize all cities and towns web address (e.g. www.ci.cumberland.md.us for Cumberland, MD). Some municipalities have done this and many have not.
Economagic (www.economagic.com) is a useful site that includes popular economic statistics such as interest rates, manufacturing, and labor statistics. What I use it for is to determine the unemployment rate and the size of the labor force for any MSA (metropolitan statistical area) in the United States. It gives 10+ years of data so you can tell what the trend is for the area.
To learn about companies and manufacturers in the area, you may want to visit the Thomas Regional Industry Directory (www.thomasnet.com). The content is free. You enter the area you are experienced working in (e.g. welding supplies) then click on the state. What you will get is a list of all welding supply companies in the state. The list is alphabetized by company name so you'll need to scroll through it to find the closest town or city.
Another very useful source for learning about potential jobs in the area is the local newspaper, yellow pages, and chamber of commerce (see sections below).
One of the best ways to find out all kinds of information about the community including business information, community services, real estate costs, taxes, jobs, etc is the local chamber of commerce. Most chambers welcome your questions and requests for information. Remember, they want you to move to their area. For a listing of chambers in the United States, visit World Chamber Of Commerce Directory (www.chamberofcommerce.com). Simply enter your town or county in the box and hit enter. I've found that it helps to know what county you are considering because many small towns do not have their own chamber. Instead, they rely on the county chamber of commerce.
There are numerous free calculators out there such as the one at www.homefair.com or www.monstermoving.com but the drawback is that they mostly cover larger cities. These calculators are useful to get a rough idea of costs for the general region.
Another thing you can do is write to the local chamber of commerce. They often have a sheet that includes living expenses (see above section).
Another excellent resource is the Cost of Living Index (www.coli.org). It provides details on over 300 cities/areas including smaller areas however you have to pay for this service.
The best source for locating crime statistics in the United States is the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (www.fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm). This excellent resource breaks down crime by type, number, and area (even includes rural towns). Click on the newest report (as of this writing it was 2001), scroll down to the Index of Crime and choose area (it's divided into U.S., State, MSA (metropolitan statistical area), and rural city/county). Please note, the tables utilize Microsoft Excel to display. You can get a free Excel viewer at Microsoft (www.microsoft.com/office/000/viewers.asp) if you don't have Microsoft Office on your computer; simply click on Excel to download.
Reading the local newspaper is a great way to get a sense for the area. The United States Newspaper Site (www.50states.com/news/) provides links to all newspapers available online. Simply click on your state of interest. NOTE FROM THE WWW.TINCHER.TO WEBMASTER: Use the "Find on this page" option of your web browser's Edit menu to quickly search the newspaper list for a city name.
Many websites allow you to search the local white and yellow pages for any area. We were able to find a local heating oil company before we moved to our new house by searching on Super Pages (www.superpages.com). Simply browse for the proper yellow pages category and do a search on the town. If you don't know the category you need you can always refer to your local phonebook or Super Pages will allow you to do a keyword search and suggest categories. The yellow pages could also come in handy for getting an idea as to the kinds of businesses in the area when you are conducting a job search.
Probably the best site for real estate information nationwide is www.realtor.com. This site contains all properties in the United States listed in the MLS (multilisting service). It doesn't include properties for sale by owner and listings by very small agencies that do not participate in the MLS (offices have to pay a fee to belong). The site allows you to search on a particular town or county and specify price range and acreage. It's the best way to get a sense for housing and land costs plus some listings include real estate taxes for a particular property. You can also search for a realtor or a real estate office in the area.
In order to find information about local taxes I would recommend writing to the Chamber of Commerce in the area (see above for more information). I also had success doing a Google search (www.google.com) on the area we moved to. I just did a search on "Berks County taxes" (put search terms in parentheses for more accurate results) and got several sites that outlined how much taxes are in my area.
For those of you who have children and intend to use the public school system, you can get basic information about all public school systems in the United States by doing a Google search (www.google.com) on the area you are considering. For example, we just moved to Pennsylvania so I did a search on "Pennsylvania public schools" and was directed to a site by the Pennsylvania Department of Education that profiled PA schools.
For homeschoolers, you may want to visit Homeschool Central (homeschoolcentral.com) and click on State Information to learn about resources and regulations in the state you are considering.
One of the most important considerations is the weather. If you have animals or are an avid gardener you will need to know how much rain the area gets and how long the growing season is. One of my favorite weather sites is Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com). What I like about it is that you just have to quickly enter the zip code (or city, state) for the current forecast. But, more interestingly, it allows you to get historical data for any given day (e.g. if you wanted to know the high/low and snowfall totals for January 1, 1998). Click on Historical in the Conditions section to learn about what the weather was like on any given day in the past. On the downside, Weather Underground has a lot of pop-up window advertising which is distracting.
For statistical averages (e.g. average rainfall, snowfall, temperatures) for an area, an excellent and concise site that I would recommend is Climate Normals (ggweather.com/normals/index.htm). Just click on the state that you are considering and the site gives you normal highs and lows and precipitation for each month and a yearly total for all regions of the state.
Since Climate Normals only gives liquid precipitation, you may want to visit the National Average Snowfall (www.met.utah.edu/jhorel/html/wx/climate/normsnow.html) chart put together by the University of Utah Department of Meteorology. It's not the easiest site to use but it's free! It's a list of snowfall by month and annual totals for mid-sized and large cities in the United States.
If you are having difficulty finding information about the community, you may want to consider contacting the local library. LibWeb (sunsite.berkeley.edu/Libweb/) is basically a list of all libraries in the United States (both public and academic). Do a search on the town you are thinking of but don't include a comma (e.g. to search for libraries in Hamburg, PA do your search as Hamburg PA without comma) or just click on "public libraries" then the state and browse through the list. Librarians are great people and want to help!
NOTE FROM THE WWW.TINCHER.TO WEBMASTER: This is a condensed version of an article which was published in the March/April 2003 issue of Countryside Magazine (www.countrysidemag.com). Bob Flatley very kindly gave me permission to edit it and post it here. The original article is available on Bob Flatley's The Homestead Librarian website.