Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Finding an Affordable Place Where Your Kids Can Thrive

Real estate agents across the nation say downsizing is down but upsizing is way, way up. The main reason? COVID-19 has convinced many that living large is much more commodious at a time when one’s residence is the centerpiece of both family life and work.

What’s top of mind for many homebuyers now are the needs of their young children -- many of whom have been stuck at home for months with classes and summer camps canceled, says Stacy Berman, a veteran agent now doing a brisk business helping home shoppers who aspire to upsize.

Berman notes that parents don’t know when and under what circumstances their children will return to school or their usual extracurricular activities. Because of that, “Families are looking for homes where their kids can have backyard space -- maybe even enough space to install a big Slip 'N Slide or a trampoline,” says Berman, who’s affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (crs.com).

COVID-19 has also underscored the importance of having as much interior square footage as possible, says Tom Early, a longtime real estate broker who works solely with buyers and takes no listings.

“People still want a fabulous kitchen that connects to a super ‘great room,’ but now they also want a home office for every adult and dedicated homework space for all the kids. On top of that, they wish for a nice home entertainment center and a home workout room for the whole family,” says Early, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

“Millions of Americans who lost jobs or income are only able to stay in their homes right now thanks to extraordinary forbearance programs, which means they likely have to pause their plans to trade up or move to a new city,” says Jeff Tucker, an economist for Zillow (zillow.com), which tracks real estate markets throughout the U.S.

But as Tucker observes, the availability of near-record low mortgage rates is proving a strong incentive for move-up buyers who hold steady jobs and are yearning for a larger, more kid-friendly house.

Buyer eagerness is reflected in the latest Home Purchase Sentiment Index done by Fannie Mae (fanniemae.com), the national mortgage company. After dropping to nearly its lowest level in history in April, the index bounced back significantly in June. Fully 61% of consumers now think it’s a good time to buy a home.

Here are a few pointers for buyers with young children:

-- Seek a property with as many bedrooms as your budget allows.

Newly built houses with a wealth of living space typically feature spacious master bedroom suites. In such houses, secondary bedrooms, designed for children and guests, are more of an afterthought.

But Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and the co-author of “Home Buying for Dummies,” says it’s often more important for families to have an adequate number of bedrooms than a luxurious master suite.

“People who have fond memories of sharing a bedroom with a sibling may be fine with that sort of setup. However, nowadays most buyers really want a separate bedroom for every kid -- so all the children can get enough sleep,” he says.

--Recognize that a two-story house gives you more space for the money.

Many current buyers favor single-level living. But Tyson says those with young children might wish to consider the advantages of living on two levels. That’s because it’s easier to contain the noise and mess of growing children if their bedrooms are separated from the family’s common living space. Also, young families can typically get more square footage for the money in a two-story house.

“In most areas, the key component of housing costs are land costs. Because two-story houses require less land, you usually get more house for the same price,” Tyson says.

-- Spend ample time investigating nearby schools.

Through the internet, it’s easy to compare schools on the basis of standardized test scores. But there are many other factors to consider as well, says Berman, whose children are 14 and 16 and still don’t know if their schools will reopen this fall.

Berman always advises her home-buying clients to make an appointment to visit schools in any neighborhood they’re considering and to meet with staff there. But during the pandemic, when in-person visits are often unavailable, she recommends parents request a video conference with the principal or staff counselors.

“Invisible factors make a huge difference to children, especially if they have special talents -- like art or music -- or special learning issues. Plus, the leadership of a school sets the tone for its culture, which could greatly affect your kids’ experience there,” Berman says.

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