Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips for Buying in the Burbs

Housing analysts theorize that millennials -- people born between 1981 and 1996 -- have turned their backs on suburbia. It’s true that many in this generation would choose a smaller, older house in a vital city neighborhood over an oversized manse in suburbia.

But recent statistics show that large, newly built suburban houses remain a favorite among a subgroup of this age cohort. Especially eager to buy new in suburbia are those now in their early 30s who’ve already started families or intend to do so soon.

For home builders, this eagerness is translating to an upsurge in orders in recent months.

“(A)ttractive mortgage rates are contributing to positive builder outlook,” says Robert Dietz, chief economist at the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Home Builders (nahb.org).

Are you interested in buying a new house in a suburban enclave? If so, these pointers could prove helpful:

-- Seek a neighborhood where property values are likely sustainable.

James W. Hughes, an expert on housing demographics, says that in the event of an economic downturn, the real estate recovery will come earliest in areas long popular with families who have school-age children, a large segment of the suburban home-buying market.

This principle was evident in the aftermath of the housing downturn that hit the nation around 2008. The first neighborhoods to bounce back were those that remained popular throughout the recessionary period, says Hughes, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

-- Avoid neighborhoods that are logistically challenged.

For years, many families seeking very large homes have been willing to accept lengthy commutes so they could enjoy the benefits of extra living space and a big yard. Prices per square feet of living space tend to be lowest in distant suburbs. The idea, real estate agents say, is to “drive until you qualify.”

But as Hughes says, mounting traffic congestion has caused many homebuyers to question the desirability of living in an outer suburb.

Perhaps you’re willing to endure a long commute. Still, for work/life balance in the long run, Hughes advises against buying a house that’s more than a 30-minute drive from an employment center where the economy is relatively steadfast. Those who choose a closer-in suburb also stand a better chance of selling well when it’s their turn to move.

-- Pick a neighborhood with an excellent elementary school.

Much has been made of the power of strong neighborhood schools to hold up real estate values over the long run. Hughes endorses this view and says a top-rated elementary school is especially important.

“Even more than the middle or high school, an excellent elementary is something families seek out when they’re moving,” he says.

How can you be sure the house you purchase will be served by a high-performing elementary? Real estate agents are reluctant to characterize schools with descriptive adjectives. But they can quickly assemble reams of statistics, such as test scores, that will let you compare one school to another. Or you can find these data yourself by going to the local school system’s website.

-- Search for a solidly built house.

Abraham Tieh, a longtime Texas real estate broker, says there’s no reason to accept second-class construction when you choose your new suburban house. But how can you identify subdivisions where the builders took extra care? One way is to closely examine the interior detailing in a house as one indication of its construction quality.

“You can’t see behind the walls of a house that’s already built. However, you can see if the cabinetry and wood trim were well-finished. Also, you can judge whether the builder used long-lasting roofing materials or the cheapest available shingles,” says Tieh, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

To further assess construction quality, he recommends you go door-to-door in any subdivision you’re considering to ask questions of residents.

“People already living in the neighborhood will tell you straight out if there have been lots of problems with the builder or if major construction flaws have surfaced,” Tieh says.

While you’re at it, he says you should survey the neighbors on the energy efficiency of their homes. For instance, ask them how much they must typically pay monthly for gas and electric service and whether their homes were outfitted with airtight, energy-efficient windows.

-- Make sure you have solid reasons for seeking an oversized property.

Families with young children typically favor large houses because of all the advantages they offer in terms of lifestyle.

“They want loads of bedrooms, bathrooms, walk-in closets, a game room for the kids and a country kitchen where everyone can hang out,” Tieh says.

Hughes says it’s only a minority of young buyers who are willing to accept a property in the suburbs in exchange for extra space. But if you’re among them, you can probably count on the appreciation potential of your large property, so long as it’s solidly built and not too far from a town or city center.

“A segment of the population will always prefer big houses, just as they’ll prefer big cars if they can afford them," he says.

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