How to find a safe neighborhood (© AE Pictures Inc./Getty Images)

It's one of the first things buyers ask and something real-estate agents can't answer: Is the neighborhood safe?

Agents, constrained by fair housing laws, aren't allowed to badmouth neighborhoods or even declare them "safe." They can only say something to the effect of, "We suggest you check out any area you're considering."

OK — so how, exactly, do you do that?

You can jump online and get your fill of colorful maps overlaid with crime data, thanks to a growing number of such sites. But these dense splashes of data, while useful, can also become confusing. (More on this below.)

"They give you a picture, but it's a very fuzzy picture," says Greg Saville, a former police officer who now teaches urban planning and leads the movement to design safe communities. "You really need to know what you're looking at to know what it means."

Saville says that while he appreciates the data, it's not enough. You have to turn off the computer and go take a good, studious walk.

Trust your gut?
Issamar Ginzberg, who buys residences to lease in New York City, gauges a neighborhood using what he calls the potato chip method: "Get out of the car, buy a bag of chips at the corner bodega and calmly eat the bag of chips outside the house.

"If I can finish the bag of chips and feel safe the whole time, I'll buy real estate in that neighborhood," he says.

It's what police have long said, for many situations: Pay attention and trust your gut. Homebuyers certainly rely on it, often by taking a drive. Even safety officials reiterate the concept.

"I always feel like if your gut says there's something wrong, there's something wrong," says Robbi Woodson, manager of the National Sheriffs' Association Neighborhood Watch program, at USAonWatch. "If things don't look right, then most likely they're not right."

But the gut is driven by real information, even when people aren't aware of it. And some of that information may, in fact, be off, colored by preconceived notions of what a "safe" area is supposed to look like.

To be certain, experts say, prospective buyers need to know what to consider and apply the same methodical inventory they use to evaluate the home. Check off the boxes.

"A lot of people spend so much time looking at the physical configuration of the house, but they forget that they don't just live in the house, they live in the neighborhood," Saville says. "Their life is affected by the neighbors."

Some of the tips offered below might seem obvious, but others might surprise.

A neighbor who cares
If you've been paying any attention to the news since the 1990s, when community policing came into vogue, then you're familiar with the broken-windows theory.

Broken windows, nearly all criminologists agree, along with dilapidated buildings, abandoned lots, missing street lights, rampant graffiti, unkempt yards — basically any signs of neglect — attract crime. The reasons are both practical — dark, lonely spots sit out of view — and psychological — would-be vandals are, ironically, less apt to mess with nice stuff.

As a prospective resident, though, you have to consider an underlying question, too. Will people who let their lots fall into disrepair treat you badly as well? After all, it's the neighbors, not the police, who will serve as the first and best line of defense.

"If the lawns aren't mowed, the trash is not picked up, that shows people have no pride in the neighborhood," says John Z. Wetmore, the producer of "Perils for Pedestrians," a television show about neighborhoods and safety. "If you care about the neighborhood, you're probably going to care about your neighbors too.

"You can be on a street with really modest homes, but if people take care of them, it can be a good place to live," Wetmore says.

"Neighbors" includes the folks down at town hall. Take a walk. Do you see damaged signs? Potholes in the road? Breaks in the sidewalk? Come back at night. Are there broken street lights?

"It gives you an indication that the local council is not doing a good job," Saville says, or that locals fail to demand that the town make repairs. "The physical condition of the roadways tells you a lot, actually."