Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


As the economy improves and gas prices fall, more homebuyers are pondering the purchase of a new house in a distant suburb where they can get more square footage for the money. But a leading expert on commuting warns of worse commutes ahead.

"The unfortunate reality is that traffic congestion gets worse when gas gets cheaper and more people have jobs," says Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant and author of the "Commuting in America" book series.

Eric Tyson, a personal finance specialist and co-author of "Home Buying for Dummies," recommends that all buyers take the issue of commuting very seriously and recognize that gas prices will almost certainly rise again.

"Beware of the cyclicality of all energy prices. You don't want to trivialize the costs of a long commute in either money or time. There's also a fatigue factor that sets in, especially after you've done a lengthy commute for a few years," Tyson says.

Why are some homebuyers tempted to buy in an outer ring suburb? Tyson says that in many metro areas, the bulk of new home construction is situated in the outer tier, where developers can obtain the cheapest land.

"Lots of buyers -- including those on a tight budget -- want that big new house with all the bells and whistles. That's a house they can only afford far outside a city or town center," Tyson says.

Commuting problems aren't easily escaped in many areas. But Tyson says homebuyers who are careful to research the neighborhoods they're considering can ignore some of the more horrific travel problems. Here are a few pointers:

-- Try out your commute on more than one day of the week.

Many real estate specialists advise buyers to hold off on choosing an area until they know what their prospective commute would involve.

"You have to drive the drive at the actual times you'll be doing it daily. There's simply no substitute for such test drives," Tyson says.

Pisarski says one test drive is insufficient because the volume of traffic can vary widely from one day to another, especially on overburdened roads. He recommends Tuesday and Friday -- usually the heaviest traffic days -- for the best commuter tryouts.

-- Look for a commute that doesn't depend on a major highway.

The interstate highway system was designed for long- distance travel, not commuting, Pisarski notes. But commuters have increasingly come to depend on such roadways for daily trips to work and back.

In an effort to ease traffic congestion, many local governments are now widening roadways rather than starting from scratch with a new highway. Typically, an ambitious new road project is more controversial, costly and takes longer to build.

But Pisarski cautions that relying on a major highway as the main conduit of your commute can backfire when the unexpected occurs, such as when a tractor-trailer tips over and traps motorists for hours on end.

Listening to radio traffic updates can alert you to problems ahead of time. But such alerts are only helpful if you have alternative ways to reach your destination.

-- Consider a community not hemmed in by physical barriers.

Many communities face major traffic challenges. But some have better prospects for future relief than others.

"Homebuyers should be wary of a traffic-ridden community that's circumscribed by any physical barrier, such as mountains or a body of water," Pisarski says.

Moreover, he says road-construction projects to improve travel are much more likely in areas free of these natural obstacles.

-- Talk to residents in an outlying area where you'd like to live.

Though the details of their commutes will differ, your prospective neighbors should be able to tell you what roadways are the most troublesome and when.

Also, local residents may be able to tell you about future housing developments slated for their area, which will give you clues to whether current traffic problems might worsen dramatically in the future.

According to Pisarski, too many people take a mental snapshot of the current road situation and make the mistaken assumption that the picture won't change.

"With infrastructure projects backed up due to funding declines, traffic could easily get worse," he says.

-- Review your plans to move to a "fringe" suburb before committing.

As construction continues to bounce back in the aftermath of the recession, Tyson says congestion is increasing most rapidly in outlying areas. Yet these are the ones where new road construction struggles most to keep up with costly transportation projects.

It's easy to identify neighborhoods where local government services are strapped. Often they have schools bulging with students and emergency medical services under stress. They also lack funds to widen or replace the narrow roads built when the community was still rural.

It's understandable that income-constrained homebuyers would consider moving to an outlying area to get more house for their money. But those who make this trade-off should remember that they'll probably pay a higher price in other ways, Tyson says.

"Do you really want to live so far away from work that you'll roll into your driveway at 9 p.m. and have only enough time left to grab a bite and watch a little TV before going to bed? That kind of lifestyle could be too high a price to pay for your castle," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at