Many homebuyers with young kids face a major challenge as they attempt to balance the high cost of housing in a child-friendly neighborhood with the mounting expenses involved in child-rearing, says Eric Tyson, author of "Personal Finance for Dummies."
To avoid overstretching their budgets, Tyson, the father of three teenagers, says that parents must set their home-buying priorities carefully.
"The reality is that nearly all families have to compromise on the home features they can afford and sometimes on their neighborhood selection also," Tyson says.
He encourages dual-income parents to choose a neighborhood that's reasonably close to their jobs, even if that means accepting a smaller or older place than they could obtain for the same price in a distant suburb.
"Unless you absolutely have to drive a long way, you should try for a short commute to have more time with the family," Tyson says.
Here are a few pointers for buyers with young children:
-- Don't assume that schools with high test scores are your best bet.
It's a positive for parents that test scores are now widely available on the Internet so schools can be compared schools on that basis. But Tyson says test scores are just one way of assessing schools.
"Test scores are a fairly superficial measure," says Tyson, adding that school size and the availability of special programs, such as those in music, theater and art, are also important variables if you children are gifted in one of these areas.
William Bainbridge, president of the SchoolMatch Institute, which helps families find the best available schools, recommends that parents visit schools and meet with teachers and administrators. That way they'll get a feel for the culture of each school and whether it's welcoming to incoming students.
Bainbridge says some parents risk overspending on housing because they believe that schools in high-cost areas would necessarily be better for their kids. He contends that income levels don't always correlate with school quality, though parental involvement often does.
"In terms of the right atmosphere and extracurriculars for your kids, you could be surprised to find that a less expensive neighborhood is often a better choice than a pricey one," Bainbridge says.
-- Think through the need for a sizeable yard for your children.
It's obviously advantageous for children to live on a property large enough for a swing set or a spur-of-the-moment softball game. But as Tyson notes, children of the current generation are much more heavily scheduled than were their parents at the same age. They have many more programmed activities packed into their after-school, weekend and vacation hours.
Also, he says, neighborhoods with small yards are often friendlier than those with two-acre or larger lots.
"Where yards are smaller, kids are closer to their buddies and don't need to be driven around as much," Tyson says.
Houses in a neighborhood with small yards are usually less expensive than those in the same general area that are surrounded by elaborate landscaping.
If you can't afford a large yard, Tyson suggests you look for a house in a community with a major park or playground area. Alternatively, look for a place on a cul-de-sac with no through traffic.
-- Choose a floor plan that functions well for your family.
Dorcas Helfant, a former president of the National Association of Realtors (www.realtor.org), says it's more important for families to have a floor plan that encourages togetherness than a home with formal rooms.
"For most families, it doesn't much matter if they have a living room or a formal dining room. But it's a significant plus to have an eat-in kitchen that flows into a family room, so that while they're cooking, parents can keep an eye on the kids.
This combination room, Helfant notes, becomes the "nerve center" of the household, promoting togetherness between parents and kids during their scarce free hours.
-- Seek to buy as many bedrooms as you can afford.
Since the recession, architects and design specialists have speculated that American families would lose the desire to own large houses. But Helfant says that apart from formal living areas, people still want as much square footage as they can afford.
"Why would people who own a 60-inch television want a small family room? And who wants those tiny closets and bathrooms of our parents' generation? The answer is absolutely nobody," Helfant says.
She recommends that families on tight budgets who must make trade-offs place a priority on buying a home with enough bedrooms so that (ideally) each child can have one of their own and the parents will still have space for a home office.
"What's also wonderful is to have a guest room where the grandparents can stay when they come to visit," Helfant says.
-- Consider purchasing a two-story house.
Many baby boomers now seeking housing want a one-level property, seeking the increased convenience as they age.
But those with school-age children may wish to consider seriously the advantages of living on two levels, according to Helfant. 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, the parents of young children can entertain guests on the first floor while their children are playing with friends or sleeping upstairs.
"Remember that in a two-level home you get more space for the money because it takes up less land. And land prices have soared to premium levels in this country," Helfant says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)