A couple in their early 30s -- an elevator company salesman married to a nurse -- had for five years relished life in a up-and-coming city neighborhood with lots of good restaurants and bars nearby. But after their first child was born, their priorities shifted.
"Like a lot of young homebuyers, their whole orientation became schools, schools, schools," says Ashley Richardson, the real estate agent who assisted them.
Soon the couple pinpointed a suburban neighborhood with a top-rated elementary school, along with parks, playgrounds and a community pool. There was only one catch: high prices.
Working with a limited budget, the couple identified just five houses they could afford in their first-choice neighborhood, all in the bottom 10 percent of the price range there. Of those, only one had enough living space to make it a plausible choice. And that one was located on a busy road. But they knew their limited funds necessitated a compromise, so they took it.
Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "Home Buying for Dummies," says that since the recession, many homebuyers such as the above couple have lowered their expectations for housing.
Here are a few pointers for budget-conscious homebuyers with young children:
-- Make a realistic assessment of your need for a large yard.
Recalling their own carefree childhoods, some parents assume their kids need a similar setting to be happy. But what was important in your formative years isn't necessarily vital for your children now, Tyson says.
"The reality is that kids just don't have as many hours of free time for backyard play as we did when we were growing up," Tyson says.
Rather than focusing solely on yard size, Tyson suggests you think about the outdoor features of the neighborhood as a whole, such as parks and open space.
Surprisingly, neighborhoods where yards are smaller are often more child-friendly than those with oversized grounds.
"It's good for children to live close to their neighborhood friends. That way they don't have to be driven around to see playmates," Tyson says.
-- Find a floor plan that works well for your family.
Tyson says it's more important for families with young children to have a floor plan that encourages togetherness than to own a large house.
Large, comfortable common rooms -- often called "great rooms" -- help draw children out of their bedrooms, thereby allowing parents to monitor their kids at homework time, for example.
-- Look for a home with as many bedrooms as your budget allows.
Newly built houses with a wealth of living space typically feature spacious master bedroom suites. In such houses, secondary bedrooms, designed for children and guests, are usually much smaller.
But Tyson says it's more important for families to have an adequate number of bedrooms than a luxurious master suite.
"People who have fond memories of sharing a bedroom with a sibling may be fine with that sort of setup. However, nowadays, most buyers really want a separate bedroom for every kid, so all the children can get enough sleep, even if they have different school schedules," he says.
-- Realize that a two-story house should give you more space for the money.
Many current homebuyers favor single-level living. Those who've hit middle age or beyond are especially likely to prefer a one-story house free of stairs.
But Tyson says people with school-age children might wish to consider the advantages of living on two levels. That's because it's easier to contain the noise and mess of growing children if their bedrooms are separated from the family's common living space.
With a two-story house, parents can entertain guests on the first level while their kids are playing upstairs. Also, young families can typically get more space for the money in a two-story house.
-- Explore school quality beyond test scores.
Through the Internet, it's now easy to compare schools on the basis of standardized test scores. But there are many other factors to consider as well, says William Bainbridge, president of the SchoolMatch Institute (www.schoolmatch.com), a research group focused on comparative school quality.
Before making your final neighborhood selection, Bainbridge strongly recommends that parents 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 its faculty.
"Intangible factors can make a huge difference to children. You don't want your kids taught in an environment with punitive teachers, even if the school's test scores are stellar," he says.
-- Don't cater to your children's housing preferences.
It's not uncommon for children to protest their parents' plan for a housing move. Why? Because, as Tyson says, "children like constancy."
To mollify their unhappy children, some parents let their kids influence which property they buy. But Tyson says most children adapt quickly to a move and that letting their feelings sway your planning could be a regrettable mistake.
"Maybe your children like one house better than another because it has purple bedrooms. But that's no basis on which to make so major a financial decision," he says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)