I have always found it hard to do things the same way twice, but I can see looking back at past neighbourhoods that I have a sort of loose, basic scheme for how I build them. I need:
1. A Sim With A Purpose. Or a few of those. A sim/sims who (in my mind) come with hopes and expectations for their future life. I may start a hood with a certain challenge in mind, but the most imposrtant thing in that case is that I have some sort of image of who the founder sim is in themselves.
2. An empty map with no lots. Usually a small one. I love playing small towns and countryside. But if my Sim With A Purpose is a wannabe supermodel who spends all her free time in clubs, the map will be suitable for building a large town.
3. Random townies for the founding sim/sims to interact with. I don't like the maxis townies that much because I feel like I know them by now, I let the game randomly generate a set of townies instead. Free plot twists, that I didn't have to come up with myself! I love discovering what these random pixels want in life and how they will affect the story of my own sims and the fate of the neighbourhood.
4. Mostly small lots and mostly lots I've built or heavily adapted myself. Too many big lots make the neighbourhood a chore for me to play, I prefer playing in small houses and on small community lots - but they have to be planned out right, which is why I mostly use lots I've built myself even if I get bored with building very quickly and it feels like a chore. I'm not good at it either.
I don't plan too much ahead and I decorateand build new lots as I go along, but before I start I place at least two community lots so I have somewhere to meet those all-important random townies.
@AnMal -I love starting my towns out as a tiny pioneer settlement out west in the 19th century or it might be like my Pleasantview Epic Challenge starting out as a colonial settlement in the New World in the 17th century.My apocalypse and TOT challenge is Riverdale in the New World in 1520 being settled by sims fleeing a war-torn Europe that's headed for famine after a volcano erupted and disturbed the weather patterns.My town starts with tow lots of the largest size with one being the service center lot and the other is the homestead for my founding couple to live on.The service center is built by the work crews over the spring,summer and fall on arrival while the couple is to begin building a shelter on their home lot and start working on earning money from growing crops.The town will start to make itself over time as the population grows and eventually evolve into something different than what it started as with subhoods for districts.