Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


Before selecting a home to buy, many people spend hours wrestling with less-than-perfect alternatives. Their struggle focuses on finding a house with all the features they want without exceeding their budget.

"For a lot of people, the choice is between a house with more space a suburban setting versus one closer to a city and their workplace," says Ashley Richardson, a long-time real estate agent.

The conflicts are especially intense for buyers with school-age children who think that suburban schools are better than urban ones.

"Almost all buyers shop first by school district, even if they don't have kids. That's because they know good schools lead to stronger property values," says Richardson, who's affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (

But what about the trade-offs for those who opt for a suburban home? Lengthy commutes can be expensive, stressful and time-consuming. Are a larger house and a better school worth that time and unpleasantness?

Tom Early, a real estate broker who's spent most of his career working solely with homebuyers, estimates that just 15 to 20 percent of older buyers will accept a smaller, dated house to gain closer access to their workplace. But he says younger buyers are increasingly city-focused and have a low tolerance for long commutes.

"Though most of these young folks grew up in the suburbs, they consider suburban living really boring and desolate," says Early, a former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (

Fred Meyer, a veteran real estate broker who sells property near Harvard University, says there's no one right answer for homebuyers who face incompatible priorities.

"Where you live is a very personal matter. So don't worry about what other people think of your priorities," Meyer says.

Here are a few other pointers for buyers:

-- Try out a potential commute before you commit.

Alan Pisarski, author of the "Commuting in America" book series, has done extensive work documenting the time Americans spend on the road. His research reveals that average commuting times have increased every year since 2004.

In high-cost areas especially, more people now face what Pisarski terms an "extreme commute," which means it's both lengthy and grueling. They do this because they can't afford the large home they want closer to work.

"I call this 'driving to qualify,'" he says.

Pisarski urges those considering a move to a far-flung suburb to do a test drive of the prospective commute during the rush-hour periods. They'll get a false picture if they try the drive on Saturday or a Sunday.

-- Notice the major difference in floor plans between old and new.

As Early points out, many houses built during the big construction surge following World War II are laid out very differently than those built in recent decades.

The differences are most evident in the core of the house. Though many newer homes have a tiny living room -- or none at all -- they often feature an oversized "great room," which involves a spacious and well-equipped kitchen that flows directly into a big family room. Most people aren't really comfortable with the kind of small or narrow kitchens found in older houses, he says.

Unlike Early, who relies on his microwave and rarely cooks, many homebuyers refuse to give up a showplace kitchen.

-- Seek the services of a highly qualified home inspector.

Early says that those considering the purchase of an older property in a close-in neighborhood should be especially careful when selecting a home inspector.

"You have to face the reality that older houses are more likely to have serious defects in terms of their plumbing, electrical and structural systems," he says.

Early suggests you look beyond the names of inspectors provided to you by your real estate agent. One source of referrals that he recommends is the American Society of Home Inspectors (

"Create a short list of inspectors and then be conscientious about calling and asking for references from past clients," he says.

-- Take account of the full costs of a "teardown" project.

Buyers who have a tough time deciding between an old house in a close-in community and a roomier one in an outlying suburb often ponder a third option: building a new home in an established part of town.

But given that empty lots are typically rare and costly in desirable neighborhoods, this plan usually means they must tear down a home to get the lot they need for their new house. Teardowns are occurring with increasing frequency in many areas where land values are high.

If you're sufficiently well off to do a teardown, this plan could give you the best of both worlds: a new house with direct city access.

But Early warns that a teardown can prove far more expensive than many people anticipate. Not only must you pay for the original house and lot, but you also have to cover the cost to build the new property. In addition, unexpected expenses often surface before the project is over.

"The hidden costs for a teardown can rob you blind," Early says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at