Smart Moves

Tips For Buyers With Small Children

Homebuyers who grew up with a sizable backyard typically envision their kids also frolicking in open space. But there are increasing barriers to this idealized vision, says Felipe Chacon, an economist for Trulia, which tracks real estate markets throughout the country.

“America’s homes are getting bigger. But more space comes at a price: the backyard,” say Chacon, who recently completed a comprehensive report on the topic.

He says the trend toward homes with bigger footprints is continuing to accelerate.

“Homes built since 2015 occupy 25 percent of the land on which they sit, while homes built in 1975 occupy just 13.9 percent,” Chacon says.

Of course, some affluent buyers can afford to live in a close-in community with both a big house and a big yard. To accomplish this goal, well-to-do purchasers in some white-hot neighborhoods are buying a modest house on a large lot and then tearing down the building to make room for a larger, custom-built house.

“The trend toward tear-downs is happening in popular areas all over the country,” Chacon says.

Here are a few suggestions for buyers with young children:

-- Ponder the question of how much yard space you truly need.

Yard-wise, what may have worked for you growing up isn’t necessarily best for your kids, says Eric Tyson, a consumer advocate and co-author of “Home Buying For Dummies.”

“Children are much more programmed than they used to be. Many are involved in lots of scheduled activities -- from piano lessons to sports teams. There’s less spontaneous play,” he says.

Rather than focusing heavily on yard size, Tyson suggests you consider the outdoor features of a neighborhood you’re considering, including parkland and bike paths.

As Tyson says, neighborhoods where yards are smaller are often more family-friendly.

“Kids can be closer to their neighborhood friends. They don’t have to be driven around to see their playmates,” he says.

-- Realize you can often get more floor space in a two-story home.

Many home shoppers are looking for a single-level ranch-style house. Those who’ve hit middle-age or beyond are especially likely to prefer a one-story house, which doesn’t require them to scale stairs.

But people with school-age children should consider the advantages of living on two levels, Tyson says. That’s because it’s easier to contain the noise and mess of growing children if their bedrooms are separated from the common living space of the family.

With a two-story house, parents can entertain guests on the first floor while their kids are playing or sleeping upstairs. Also, young families can typically get more space for the money in a two-story house.

-- Find a floor plan that functions well for your family.

Tyson says it’s more important for families with young children to have a floor plan that encourages togetherness than a large home.

“You probably won’t use a formal dining room, except on Thanksgiving. You’ll find more use for an inviting, good-sized family room,” he says.

Large, comfortable common rooms help draw children out of their bedrooms.

“You don’t want your young kids holed up in their rooms, spending too much time playing computer games,” Tyson says.

-- Seek to buy as many bedrooms as you can afford.

Brand-new houses with lots of square footage typically feature spacious master bedroom suites. Secondary bedrooms, designed for children or guests, are also very large, often with their own walk-in closets or even private bathrooms.

But Tyson insists it’s more important for families to have an adequate number of bedrooms than to have large bedrooms or a sumptuous master suite.

“Families with enough bedrooms can give siblings with different school schedules their own rooms. That’s an ideal way to help ensure that all the kids get enough sleep,” he says.

-- Don’t choose a neighborhood based on school test scores alone.

Though it’s now easy to compare schools on the basis of standardized test scores, there are many other factors to consider as well, says William Bainbridge, who founded the SchoolMatch Institute, a research organization focused on comparative school quality.

When matching up neighborhoods, Bainbridge urges parents to take the time to visit schools and pose questions to teachers and administrators. By doing so, they’ll get a feel for the culture of each school and whether its employees support and encourage the students who attend.

“You wouldn’t want your kids taught in a prisonlike environment -- even if the test scores at that school are excellent,” he says.

Bainbridge also urges parents to look into public education alternatives -- such as charter schools.

“School choice means more people can obtain a quality education for their kids without moving to the highest-income areas,” he says.

-- Make sure the adults in the family make the final housing decisions.

Not infrequently, school-age children will mount a protest against any housing move their parents plan because, as Tyson says, “children like constancy.”

To appease unhappy offspring, some parents let their kids cajole them into the wrong property. But Tyson says children usually adapt quickly to a move and it’s unwise to let their feelings dominate your plans.

“Buying a house is a massive financial decision. Only the parents can plot the most prudent choice,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)

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