Once her divorce was final, a health policy analyst in her 50s began earnestly seeking new housing. Her quest? To leave her petite urban apartment for a spacious place surrounded by lush greenery and gardens. Hence, she went house shopping in an exurban village far from Washington, D.C., where her office is based.
“This buyer wanted out of the city. She was sick of throwing money away on the cramped rental where she’d suffered through the pandemic,” says Stacy Berman, the real estate agent who helped the analyst navigate her housing search.
Given that buyers greatly outnumber sellers in her region, the woman faced fierce competition to beat out five rivals for the house she chose -- a 3,000-square-foot property with all her favored features. Her bid even included a generous “escalator clause” promising to exceed the next highest offer.
This analyst is hardly alone in her quest to live in a large way -- miles away from an urban core. Many who’ve been teleworking in tight quarters through the worst of COVID-19 long for the pleasures of semi-rural living.
But as the country begins emerging from the pandemic, real estate specialists recommend that many with city jobs consider the implications of living far from their places of employment.
“What if you’re called back to the office full-time or even just a few days per week? Are you really ready to accept a long and tiring commute to get back to your leafy paradise?” says Eric Tyson, the co-author of “Home Buying Kit for Dummies."
Tyson notes, however, that for many purchasers, the benefits of country living are well worth the potential hardships of a long commute.
“Big families especially relish the joys of having plenty of bedrooms and yard space for the kids to play. And there are obvious cost savings when choosing to live in an outlying area,” Tyson says.
Here are a few pointers for buyers considering the purchase of an exurban home:
-- Avoid communities that are logistically challenged.
Buyers seeking large homes often consider outer suburbs, where property is more affordable. The idea, real estate agents say, is to “drive until you qualify.”
But James W. Hughes, a housing analyst, says worsening traffic congestion has caused some buyers to question the desirability of living in an outer suburb.
Perhaps you imagine that you’d be willing to endure a long commute. Still, for work/life balance in the long run, Hughes advises against buying a house that’s more than a 30-minute drive from an employment center. Remember that those who choose a closer-in suburb also stand a better chance of selling well when it’s their turn to move.
-- Choose a neighborhood with an excellent elementary school.
Much has been made of the power of strong neighborhood schools to hold up real estate values over the long run. Hughes, a professor at Rutgers University, says a top-rated elementary school is especially important.
“Even more than the middle or high school, an excellent elementary is something families seek out when they’re moving,” he says.
How can you be sure the house you buy will be served by a high-performing elementary? Real estate agents are reluctant to characterize schools with descriptive adjectives. But they can quickly assemble reams of statistics, such as test scores, that will let you compare one school to another. Or you can find such information yourself by going to the local school system’s website.
-- Look for a solidly built house if you’re buying brand-new.
Abraham Tieh, a real estate broker in Houston, notes that the homebuilding industry is dominated by small to mid-sized entrepreneurial companies. And these firms vary widely in the quality of their workmanship.
How can you identify subdivisions where the builders took extra care? One way is to closely examine the interior detailing in a house.
“You can’t see behind the walls of a house that’s already built. However, you can see if the cabinetry and wood trim were well finished. Also, you can judge whether the builder used long-lasting roofing materials or the cheapest available shingles,” says Tieh, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).
To further assess construction quality, he recommends you go door-to-door in any new subdivision you’re considering, to ask questions of residents.
“People already living in the neighborhood will tell you straight out if there have been lots of problems with the builder or if major construction flaws have surfaced,” Tieh says.
While you’re at it, he says you should survey the neighbors on the energy efficiency of their homes. For instance, ask them how much they must typically pay monthly for gas and electric service and whether their homes were outfitted with airtight, energy efficient windows.
“Utility costs should be of critical concern to anyone moving into a very large home,” Tieh says.
-- Think through your reasoning for seeking an oversized place.
Families with young children typically favor large houses because of all the advantages they offer in terms of lifestyle.
But Hughes says even as the pandemic fades, it’s only a minority of buyers who are willing to accept a property in a deep suburb in exchange for extra space. Still, if you’re among them, you can probably count on the appreciation potential of your large property, so long as it’s solidly built.
“A segment of the population will always prefer big houses -- just as they’ll prefer big cars if they can afford them. In America, bigger is nearly always better,” Hughes says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)