Are you moving to a new area altogether or just 'adding' an area to your current coverage?
I've thought how I'd handle this if I just picked up and moved to another area. I'd start by associating myself with a busy RE brokerage and sell houses for awhile. No better way I can think of to learn first hand about the local area and it's buyers and sellers. You make contacts at the same time.
If you're trying to become familiar with another area near your current home market, this method could take some time, but it's the best way I know. Spend a ton of time scouring the MLS. Active, Pending, Sold, everthing. Read the comments, note things like special assessments, and 'near new proposed elementary school'. Drive the area thoroughly with some of the MLS examples in hand. See yourself what the value influencing factors seem to be. Views, proximity to major thoroughfares and points of interest, shopping accessibility. What drives the land values? Check sites like Floodsource or FEMA maps to find flood zones, talk with structural engineers or the building inspector for areas of 'problem soils' and such. Find a good and friendly Realtor in the area and take them to a very nice lunch and pick their brain a bit.
Mike's method is hands down, the quickest most time effective way. But it's also a bit awkward as you are the 'competition'.
i recently moved 50 miles south to midland from lamesa texas. my sponsor and i never did any midland appraisals. we just stuck to the counties north of here. now that i live here and i am on my on i want to branch out a little.
I recently(two months ago) moved my office 175 miles south of where I had been for 15 years. I believe that I was lucky, in that I have done some pretty miserable appraisals over the years, but it prepared me well for a new market. I also had the advantage of having spent a good amount of time over the past two years visiting friends here every chance I got, and began paying attention to the market then.
First thing I did was to spend about three days driving around the area after studying the maps the evening before. Pulled actives, solds and pendings, and drove by, stopping long enough to read the whole listing. Had a pretty representative sample of the market, from fixers, ranchs, two storys, splits levels , etc. Looked at some lots, some inland, some waterfront, ocean views, some acreage; again representative of what's out there. Did a whole lot of paired sales looking for trends, also calculated list to sale ratios. Study any and all market statistics from the MLS. Certain names pop out again and again: in a certain segment of the market you will see one agent's name, make a note to call or better yet to stop by and see them. Remember, flattery will get you everywhere, and a Realtor will just about slide off their chair when they are recognized for their success. And, believe less than half what they say about the market, the more succesful they are, the better "salespeople" they are. But, you can get more information in an hour long lunch than you can in a week on your own.
I pay particular attention to the maps while scouting, and mark them up with what I consider to be neighborhood boudaries. The more properties you see, the more the map either does, or does not make sense. What you would consider a boundary actually isn't one, and there is no value difference on one side of the tracks or the other. This, in my opinion is the biggest mistake appraisers make when their working a new market. Very easy thing to do, pulling comps from a better neighborhood if you can't mark the boundary.
Next thing is to start making lists, zoning offices, planning and building, contractors for site prep, utility work, streets and undergrounds. Study flood maps of the area for rough familiarity. Who are the builders, and who's building what and for what prices. What developer is buying land, and who has the construction money in the area. You will be learning more and more as you go, but you have to know who the players are, and who to call when you have a question. It's not our job to know all the answers; it is our job to know who most likely has the answer.
What you really need to do, in a few short weeks before you tackle your first assignment, is exactly what you did in the first market you started in. You have the advantage of having done it all before. I think if you do the above, you should be ready to start making some mistakes(inevitable) in about two weeks.
This is just what I did, I'm sure others will have very good suggestions also. Good luck, it is an exciting challange.