The neighborhood consumer protection agency

How the sense of community in new urbanist neighborhoods can prevent rip-offs and save you money.

  • Knowing neighbors

    Knowing neighbors

    It's times like these when borrowing things from neighbors--like an extra shovel or a snow blower--really comes in handy. Photo by Jennifer Ward

Petra Spiess, New Urban Network

Soon after moving to my new urbanist neighborhood, Bradburn Village, in Westminster, Colorado, I decided it was time I saw a dentist for a checkup. At the time, there was no dentist in the neighborhood, so I had to choose a new dentist from my insurance booklet. In retrospect, I should have at least asked some of my new neighbors for a reference to a reliable area dentist which might have prevented what happened next.

Sitting with my gaping, aching, open mouth as this new dentist checked things out, I was informed I would need “hours” of dental work, but not to worry—delivered in the cheery voice of someone who had never been told the same—because I could be sedated the whole time! I am a very hardcore skeptic, and my “danger, danger” button had been pressed when this dentist told me I needed to replace a crown that was only two years old (plus needed three more!), so I drove the hour back to my old, trusted dentist to get a second opinion. He said I didn’t need any new dental work. None. After composing a strongly worded  letter to the American Dental Association, I vowed never to visit another unfamiliar dentist. Luckily, I didn’t have to—a dentist moved into Bradburn’s downtown, and I knew for a fact if this one pulled anything like the last, I would hear it from neighborhood talk. Immediately.

The Good Side of Gossip

Gossip has a bad name because it can be harmful. It can however, also be very, very useful. It can tell you who to stay away from and why—potentially saving you money if it’s a business, and sanity if it’s a person. Bradburn’s sense of community is sustained and fed by gossip (not all of it good, but it serves the same function) as people interact frequently here, and this provides consumer protection of a sort. Because we all talk, all the time, if someone has a bad experience with a business, that experience will filter through the neighborhood and influence household purchasing decisions.

A business cannot be anonymous in Bradburn if it provides any type of consumer service that people frequently use. This prevents crooked businesses from establishing here. If your business is shady—everyone will know, sometimes at light speed thanks to our neighborhood internet board. When I visited the new dentist that had established in Bradburn’s downtown, several other neighbors had already recommended him, and he had made an effort to reach out to the community. I felt confident no untoward hijinks would ensue, as he knew word would get around like wildfire here if it did, and POOF, no more Bradburn patients. He is a wonderful dentist and I’m sure would be wonderful anywhere, but a little extra social insurance was still reassuring. 

If a business is good, it can greatly benefit from Bradburn’s sense of community. There are many examples of one neighbor doing something (usually to their house) and having a good experience with a company and then recommending the company to neighbors. We had a whole-house fan installed last spring, and we used a company three other neighbors had recommended on our internet board. The company did a great job, and we were asked about the results by other neighbors, two who also had the same company install fans in their homes shortly thereafter.

Community Savings

Because so many people here know each other, we can take advantage of some unique buying opportunities. Several times neighbors have banded together and worked out discounts with companies when they all purchased the same item as a group. This has happened with window well coverings and solar panel installations. The power of the group can lower the price for everyone. Sense of community also comes in handy—and saves people money—because we are able to borrow tools easily from neighbors. The most memorable for me was a neighbor borrowing another neighbor’s snow blower to clear the sidewalks on our street after the second multiple foot blizzard in a week (I am sure that also prevented some coronary events, saving yet more money).

Knowing people in your neighborhood means you also know what they do for work, which also comes in handy a lot of the time. Neighbors frequently use other neighbors for different services. I hooked up one neighbor looking for a new job with another neighbor who is a recruiter. We have a neighbor that specializes in furnace/air conditioning work and has been used by many neighbors to fix their broken systems. Still others help neighbors design their landscaping, pet sit when they are on vacation, tutor their kids, finish their basements, sell their houses—we even have doctors in the neighborhood who have performed surgery on neighbors and then driven them home after.  Sense of community not only provides a pool of physical tools neighbors can draw on, but valuable expertise as well, and in an economic climate like the one we are in currently, that’s as good as gold. 

Petra Spiess is a freelance writer who has lived in the new urban neighborhood Bradburn Village in Westminster, Colorado for seven years. She borrows items and expertise from her neighbors all the time, last week a neighbor helped her install a new doorbell.

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