Home buyers with school-age children face a greater challenge than ever as they search for a place that's both affordable and meets their family's aspirations.
"Parents carry with them long wish lists when they first go out house hunting. They want perfect schools, a perfect floor plan, plus a big, wonderful back yard. The challenge is to pare the list down to reality," says Dorcas Helfant, former president of the National Association of Realtors.
Helfant 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," she says.
Here are several suggestions for buyers with school-age children:
Don't make assumptions about neighborhood schools on test scores alone. Though it's now easy to compare schools on the basis of standardized test scores, there are many other factors to consider as well, says William Bainbridge, president of the SchoolMatch Institute, which provides information on schools to relocating families shopping for the best available school district.
When comparing neighborhoods, Bainbridge urges parents to take the time to visit schools and pose questions to teachers and administrators. That way they'll get a feel for the culture of each school and can discern whether its employees support and encourage the students who attend there.
Sometimes schools with stellar test scores may not be the best ones for your offspring, Bainbridge says. You'll want to shop widely, comparing neighborhoods at different price levels, seeking schools with the right atmosphere and extracurricular activities for your children. You could be surprised to find that a less expensive neighborhood is a better bet than a pricey one.
Scale down your expectations on 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 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," 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."
Helfant also believes that neighborhoods where yards are smaller are often friendlier, closer-knit and typically less expensive than ones where homes are surrounded by extensive greenery.
Choose 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 or den," she says.
For families with working parents, the advantage of this combination area is that it encourages parents and kids to spend time together -- while the parents are cooking and the kids are doing homework or playing games on the computer in the den.
The number of bedrooms and bathrooms is important. 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 more important for families 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.
Consider buying a two-story house. 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.
With a two-story house, parents can entertain guests on the first floor while their kids are playing or sleeping on the second floor.
"To be honest, many people like to send their children up to bed for the night so they can enjoy peace and quiet downstairs," she says.