With real estate values on the rebound and competition intensifying among homebuyers seeking to live in neighborhoods with top-rated schools, those with young children are finding it tough to snag an affordable home that meets their kids' educational needs.
"The bidding wars have started in neighborhoods with strong public schools," says Fred Meyer, a real estate broker who sells property near Harvard University, where parents are hyper-focused on quality education.
Meyer, who's been in real estate since 1964, has counseled family buyers through many market cycles.
"Schools should trump every other consideration when you're buying a family home. That's because the world is a lot more competitive now. In the old days, you could make a living without a good education. That's not true anymore," he says.
Dorcas Helfant, a realty company owner and past president of the National Association of Realtors (www.realtor.org), says homebuyers with kids must set priorities when choosing a property.
The rising cost of raising kids is one reason why most young families have a limited budget for housing. After-school care, music lessons and sports programs are all pricey. Then, too, there are pediatricians' bills, tutoring expenses and family vacation costs.
She says it's better for homebuyers with young children to select a community that's reasonably close to their jobs, even if that means accepting a smaller or older home than they could afford in an outlying area.
"If you're spending two hours in traffic commuting each day, your kids aren't going to see enough of you. It's better to be home more than to give your kids a big beautiful house," Helfant says.
Here are a few pointers for homebuyers with young kids:
-- Look beyond test scores when comparing schools.
With students now subjected to an increasing number of standardized tests, most public school systems now post their scores online. That makes it relatively easy to compare schools based on statistics.
But William Bainbridge, president of the SchoolMatch Institute (www.schoolmatch.com), which helps parents select schools, says test scores alone don't tell the whole story. Besides checking scores, he urges parents to visit schools and pose questions to teachers and administrators. That way, they'll get a gut feel for the atmosphere at each school and whether its internal culture supports and encourages its students.
"Also, talk to the parents of other students at the school. Ask them if the school's focus is only on drilling for tests or if they're also teaching the kids problem-solving and how to get along with others," Bainbridge says.
In addition to academics, he recommends you consider your children's special talents and interests and whether they would be served by a prospective school. For example, if your child has a passion for art, you'll want to know if the school has had to lay off art teachers due to budget cuts.
Bainbridge says you'll want to shop widely and compare neighborhoods at different price levels to find schools with the best possible mix of academic and extracurricular activities for your kids.
"There are lots more options these days. Besides comprehensive public schools, you should consider the charter and magnet schools open to your children," he says.
-- Decide whether a big yard is important to you.
As Helfant notes, many parents -- remembering their own happy childhoods in suburban settings where big yards were the norm -- want to replicate that experience for their kids.
"Pets are a huge deal, and lots of people want a big yard for a dog. Family gardening is back. And some suburban folks are even raising chickens in their backyards for the fresh eggs," Helfant says.
But Helfant advises homebuyers with kids to think through the implications of owning a property with a big yard. If you're part of a dual-income family, will you have ample time to tend your property, or to supervise the landscaping crews who do? And how much time will your kids have to frolic in the back yard?
"Lifestyles have changed dramatically for our kids. Parents are spending more time at work. And whether it's soccer or any other structured activity, children are a lot more programmed, too," Helfant says.
-- Find a floor plan that functions well for your family.
Helfant says it's more important for people with children to have a floor plan that encourages togetherness than to own a place with formal living and dining rooms.
"Nowadays, people don't live as formally as past generations. In fact, many people who have a house with big dining and living rooms are re-purposing these spaces into home offices or playrooms," she says.
What works for many families with young children is a full-sized kitchen that flows directly into a large family room or den. For families with two working parents, the advantage of this floor plan is that it encourages everyone to spend more time together. For example, the kids can do homework in the den, near parents cooking in the kitchen.
"With everyone so busy, you want those family moments together. A big area where all are comfortable hanging out is a lot better than having kids holed up in their rooms. This way the kids get more parental involvement," Helfant says.
-- Seek a home with as many bedrooms as you can afford.
Newly constructed houses with lots of square footage typically feature spacious master bedroom suites. Secondary bedrooms, designed for children or guests, are also large, often with their own walk-in closets.
But it's more critical for families to have a sufficient number of bedrooms than to have very large bedrooms and an opulent master suite, says Meyer, a seasoned real estate appraiser as well as broker.
"Over the long run, houses with more medium-sized bedrooms appreciate more than those with just one or two large bedrooms in the same location," he says.
Meyer acknowledges that sharing a bedroom helps children become adaptable. But he says there are also downsides when a child has to share with a sibling.
"As psychologists point out, it's very important to have a bedroom for each child. Every child needs a place to retreat and be alone at times of family stress," he says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)