Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

TIPS ON BUYING A MEGA-HOUSE

A widow in her late 70s recently fulfilled a long-held fantasy. She bought a 5,500-square-foot mega-house on two acres, complete with a basketball court and swimming pool.

Her goal? To create a magnet for family visits.

"The woman is incredibly happy she bought the house because all three of her grown daughters bring the grandkids over constantly," says John Rygiol, the real estate broker who helped her find the right place.

Rygiol, who's affiliated with the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org), detects a rebound in the sale of oversized houses, which began in many markets about two years ago.

"Many huge-house buyers are successful professionals with school-age kids. But a surprising number are over 55 and are checking a major item off their bucket list," Rygiol says.

James W. Hughes, a housing analyst and dean at Rutgers University, says that the desire for ownership of a large house is a constant for many in this country.

"There's something beguiling about big houses. Bigger is always better in this America -- at least for people who can afford it," Hughes says.

Rygiol says those with the ability and aspiration to own a mega-house should take into account the resale potential of the property. Otherwise, he says they could be stuck with a white elephant that might one day prove a costly mistake.

Here are a few pointers for buyers:

-- Select the most desirable neighborhood you can afford.

It's inevitable that real estate values change over time. However, Hughes says values always stay strongest in areas he calls "winners' circles." These are communities that retain their desirability during all phases of the economic cycle.

"Affluent communities with strong amenities are usually on the leading edge of any recovery," Hughes says.

Distressed properties are now rare in popular communities. And Rygiol cautions against the temptation of some buyers to go to a lesser neighborhood to capture a "steal."

Rygiol says that a smaller house in a stronger neighborhood is better than the reverse.

-- Choose an area with a reasonable commute.

In past years, more people who wanted a large house willingly accepted a lengthy commute as part of the package.

But Rygiol says more homebuyers are now fearful of taking on a long commute due to their increasingly harried schedules.

Rygiol says even "road warriors" -- who subsist on satellite radio and believe they'll always be comfortable with a long commute -- often find it tiring over time. After a few years, they conclude that the time-stealing trade-off wasn't worth the sacrifice to obtain a lower-cost-per-square-foot house.

"Frankly, buying a house that's poorly located for commuting can expose you to both financial and health risks, if you spend long hours trapped in your car," he says.

-- Seek out an area served by top-rated schools.

It's widely believed that prime neighborhood schools help keep property values strong over time. Indeed, Rygiol contends that school quality is gaining importance due to intensifying global competition.

"Everyone wants their kids to get the best possible education so they won't fall behind the pack," he says.

What's the best way to check out school quality? Real estate agents typically decline to characterize schools in terms of quality, out of concern that their comments could be construed as discriminatory. Even so, your agent should be willing to provide you a large volume of statistics that compare schools on test scores, high school graduation rates and other quantitative factors.

Also, you can make an appointment to visit schools to see how they fare on intangible factors, like the attitudes toward students conveyed by school administrators.

If you're expecting to buy a house in a high-income area, Rygiol advises you to look beyond the local public schools.

"In these areas, proximity to private schools may also influence your home values over time," he says.

-- Consider carefully the realistic needs of your household.

It's common for the parents of adolescent children to seek a large house with a master suite that's separated from the bedrooms their kids occupy. This is especially likely if their offspring like loud music or noisy video games.

But adults without children can also have solid reasons for acquiring large housing. Nowadays, they often seek extra rooms to use for dual home offices, especially if one or both wish to run a home-based business.

What's more, Rygiol says more big house buyers currently covet space for novel uses -- including a private massage room or a yoga studio.

"It's OK to buy a big house for non-traditional purposes -- if you'll enjoy it and you're absolutely sure it won't put you in a financial bind," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)