Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips for Buyers With Young Families

After college, a preschool teacher fulfilled her heartfelt wish to take up residence in a trendy Manhattan neighborhood. She couldn’t imagine a more exciting lifestyle and so pursued her New York dream for nearly 10 years.

But after getting married and starting a family, the teacher’s priorities changed quickly. Suddenly, she and her new husband hankered to move from their tiny New York rental to a three-bedroom house of their own in a nearby suburb with greenery and good schools.

“They had a strong urge for a real community, a place with friendly families who have little kids of their own,” says Stacy Berman, a veteran real estate agent and the teacher’s aunt.

Like many first-time buyers, the young couple were convinced they could pursue their real estate plans on their own. They spent countless hours doing internet research, scanning available listings. They also drove around several appealing neighborhoods, dropping by a number of open houses.

Yet after months of independent searching without success, the couple still felt confused and overwhelmed. That’s when the teacher reached out to her aunt for help.

Berman referred the couple to an experienced real estate agent in their area, and shortly after they found an affordable townhouse to their liking in a neighborhood that met many of their requirements.

“A good agent helps you see the big picture, provides hand-holding through the entire process and assists you to reach sound decisions,” Berman says.

Professional guidance is particularly important during the current period, when entry-level homes remain in short supply and prices are still ascending.

“These days it’s especially tough for families with children to get all their needs met in a property that’s still within their price range,” says Dorcas Helfant, a past president of the National Association of Realtors (

She urges working parents to pick a community that’s reasonably close to their jobs, even if that means accepting a smaller or older place than they could obtain for the same price in a distant suburb.

“It’s important that the kids have you at home rather than sitting in traffic two hours a day,” Helfant says.

Here are a few other pointers for buyers with young offspring:

-- Don’t rely solely on test scores when assessing school quality.

Though it’s now easy to compare schools on standardized test scores, there are many other factors to consider as well, according to GreatSchools (, a national nonprofit that ranks schools in multiple ways and offers guidelines for parents on school selection.

William Bainbridge, an educational policy expert, urges buyers with kids to visit any school of interest. That way they’ll get a feel for the school’s culture and whether its employees support and encourage the students who attend there.

“You could be surprised to find that a school in a less expensive neighborhood could be a better bet than one in a pricey area, especially if your child has special talents or needs,” Bainbridge says.

-- Reduce your expectations on yard size.

Many parents -- recalling their own carefree childhoods in suburban settings where big yards were the norm -- automatically assume their kids will thrive more with a large yard.

“But what was good for you back then isn’t necessarily the only good choice for your kids today," Helfant 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,” she says.

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

“Where yards are smaller, 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.

-- Look for a floor plan that meshes with your lifestyle.

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 dual-income families, the advantage of this combination area is that it encourages parents and kids to spend time together, while the parents are cooking or the kids are doing homework or playing games on the computer.

-- Seek as many bedrooms as you can afford.

Brand-new houses with lots of square footage 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 says it’s more important for families to have an adequate number of bedrooms than large bedrooms or a sumptuous master suite. Children naturally prefer to have their own rooms, 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.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at