Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Home Features That Matter to Raising Healthy, Happy Kids

In many popular neighborhoods, ascending home prices are intensifying pressure on young families who are struggling to attain their first property, according to economists who track housing sales.

"Newly listed properties are being snatched up quickly so far this year and leaving behind minimal choices for buyers trying to reach the market," says Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors.

The shortage of attainable homes is making it particularly hard for the parents of young children to move out of a cramped rental apartment to a house where their kids can thrive, according to child development experts.

"These days, many parents face tremendous financial pressures, despite the fact that they're expected to be on the clock for their bosses 24/7," says Julianne Neely, a clinical social worker and child therapist in Chicago.

One financial pressure facing those with young children involves rising health care premiums and out-of-pocket costs. A second involves the cost of repaying large student loans. And a third involves increasing child care expenses -- which can top $500 per week per child in expensive metro areas.

"Some kids are now in daycare from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. With all this craziness, it's harder for young children to form healthy attachments to their parents," says Neely, who's raising two toddlers who are foster children.

Dorcas Helfant, a former president of the National Association of Realtors, says many parents who work in urban areas would prefer to live in a desirable city neighborhood, thereby sparing themselves the kind of punishing commute that costs them quality time with their kids.

Although Helfant says many parents are skeptical about sending their kids to urban public schools -- and can't afford private school tuition -- she urges them to pick a community that's reasonably close to their jobs.

"It's better for parents to buy a smaller or older place than to get a gigantic house in a distant suburb. That's because the kids are better off having you at home rather than sitting in traffic two hours a day," says Helfant.

Here are a few pointers for buyers with young children:

-- Reduce your expectations about yard size.

As Helfant notes, many parents, recalling their own carefree childhoods in suburban settings where big yards were the norm, automatically assume their kids will be happier with a large yard.

"Children are much more scheduled than you used to be," she says. "Once kids reach school age, most are involved in lots of programmed activities, such as sports teams, educational enrichment, and summer camps. There's less spontaneous play."

Also, as Helfant says, neighborhoods where yards are smaller are often friendlier and closer-knit.

"Where yards aren't so big, kids are closer to their friends. They can walk door-to-door. You don't always have to drive them around to see their buddies," Helfant says.

Moreover, a neighborhood with smaller yards is typically less expensive than one where homes are surrounded by extensive greenery.

-- Pick a floor plan that functions well for your family.

Helfant says it's more important for couples with children to have a floor plan that encourages togetherness than a large home.

"You can trade off those big, formal dining and living rooms if you can get a full-sized kitchen that flows directly into a fairly big family room," she says.

For families with working parents, the advantage of this combination area is that it encourages everyone in the household to spend time together.

-- Seek as many bedrooms as you can afford.

Brand-new houses with lots of square footage -- popularly known as "McMansions" -- typically feature spacious master bedroom suites. Secondary bedrooms, designed for children or guests, are also very large, often with their own walk-in closets.

But Helfant insists it's better to have an adequate number of bedrooms than to have large bedrooms or a sumptuous master suite. Children naturally prefer to have their own rooms, she notes, though they'll adapt if your housing budget requires them to share rooms.

"Even more important than the number of bedrooms is that families have at least two full baths -- meaning each has a shower or a tub-shower combination. This is a simple matter of convenience," she says.

-- Assess the advantages of a two-story house.

Many now shopping in the home-buying market want a one-level, ranch-style house. But people with school-age children may wish to seriously consider the advantages of living on two levels, according to Helfant. That's because it's easier to contain the noise and mess of growing children if their bedrooms are separated from the common living space of the family, she says.

"To be honest, many people like to send their children up to bed for the night so they can enjoy peace and quiet downstairs," Helfant says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at