Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Buy a Big House

Real estate agents often joke that the bigger the house, the smaller the family. And there's some truth to this.

“Your peak earning years typically don’t occur until your 50s or 60s. That’s when you can finally afford that ‘last hurrah’ house and enjoy the fruits of your labor,” says John Rygiol, a long-time real estate broker who specializes in luxury property.

Rygiol contends that for couples who can afford the elbow room and prestige of a big house, the ideal time to make that purchase is when their children are young and can make good use of the extra space.

James W. Hughes, a housing analyst and dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, says Americans have a long-standing preference for huge houses.

“There’s something beguiling about big houses. Bigger is always better in America, assuming you can afford it,” Hughes says.

Do you have solid reasons for buying a large house -- along with the financial means to support its mortgage, utility and upkeep costs? If so, these few pointers could prove helpful:

-- Select the strongest neighborhood you can afford.

The U.S. economy is still in an expansionary phase. But housing analysts say another real estate downturn is nearly certain. That means it’s wise to buy the sort of property most likely to retain value in bad times as well as good.

“Affluent areas with strong amenities are usually on the leading edge of any recovery,” Hughes says.

Foreclosures are far less common than they were during the financial crisis. But even if you spot one that seems too good a deal to pass up, it could be a perilous choice if the property is located in an area where foreclosures are still numerous.

“Even during a strong period of recovery, it can take a long time for a neighborhood like that to regain its reputation,” Hughes says.

His rule of thumb: It’s better to compromise and buy a smaller house in a stronger neighborhood than a much bigger one in a weaker area.

-- Choose a community with a reasonable commute.

In the past, many people seeking a huge house willingly accepted a lengthy commute in exchange for the space.

But even at a time when gas prices are moderate, it can be unwise to invest in a property in a distant suburb or exurban area.

“Buying a house that requires its owners to make a one-hour-plus commute is a significant financial risk, particularly if you have to sell within five to 10 years,” Hughes says.

-- Screen for top-rated public schools.

It’s widely believed that strong neighborhood schools help keep property values high and Hughes supports this view. Indeed, he contends that school quality is becoming increasingly important.

How can you check out school quality? Real estate agents typically decline to characterize schools in terms of quality, for fear their remarks might be taken as discriminatory. Yet 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. Then, too, you can make an appointment to visit schools to see how they fare on the intangibles, like the warmth and receptivity of teachers and staff.

In addition, for a fee you can buy detailed online reports on local schools through a service such as SchoolMatch (schoolmatch.com), a research organization focused on comparative school quality.

-- Give priority to the needs of your household.

Fred Meyer, a real estate broker and appraiser who sells property near Harvard University, says many parents of school-age children want a house with a large master suite that’s segregated from the cluster of bedrooms where their kids reside. This is especially likely if their offspring are teenagers with noisy electronic devices.

If both spouses operate a home-based business or do a substantial amount of telecommuting, there's that to consider as well.

“It’s common nowadays for buyers to ask for ‘his and her’ home offices that are separated from the main living areas of the house. This requires lots of space,” Meyer says.

At this point in the economic cycle, relatively few buyers of any age can afford to buy and maintain a big house in a desirable neighborhood. But if you are the lucky exception and big house ownership is a priority for you, Meyer sees no reason to postpone this goal.

“Buyers who want the social status of a large home and are well-positioned financially can make out very nicely in any market,” he says.

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