Cover story: Less time in car high on buyers’ lists

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Whether a home is in the suburbs or in the middle of a bustling urban district, the Realtor’s mantra, “location, location, location,” often translates to mean “convenience.”

With an emphasis being placed on shorter commutes and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, industry experts say many of today’s buyers prefer to live in neighborhoods where everything’s close by.

“When people talk about ‘location,’ they are really referring to the convenience of access to things like public transportation and a nice grocery store,” said Suzanne DesMarais, principal broker with Urban Pace Fine Homes and president of the Washington DC Association of Realtors.

Recent research shows more homebuyers are choosing pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and are willing to sacrifice square footage to not have to get in a car and drive everywhere, according to data from the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

“According to the 2010 NAR Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, 25 percent of buyers said convenience to shopping was an important factor in choosing the neighborhood of the home purchased,” said Walter Molony of the NAR.

Rising gas prices also have encouraged many buyers to seek homes that don’t necessarily require them to leave the neighborhood for their shopping, dining and recreation needs.

This is especially true when it comes to living in the District, where the combination of public transportation, bicycles and walking often is the preferred method of getting around.

“We are seeing a significant rise in the number of buyers who prefer to live without a car,” Ms. DesMarais said. She added that a lot of urban buyers seek out the convenience of not having to get in a car or needing it only for short drives to take care of daily errands.

She attributes this to the fact that those buyers tend to want to minimize their expenses and eliminate the hassles of car ownership, or they simply prefer the convenience of urban living.

Herself a city dweller, Ms. DesMarais said many of her buyers are reformed commuters who no longer want to lose time out of their day sitting in traffic, whether to go to work or to run errands.

However, it’s not just city dwellers who prefer the conveniences, said Margeau Gilbert, a Realtor with Exit Right Realty in Laurel. She added that more and more of her clients are insisting on living in communities with quick access to retail stores and shopping centers.

“I find that even those clients who want to live in the suburbs make their buying decision based on how close they are to good shopping,” she said. “And if [the neighborhood is] pedestrian-friendly, they’ve hit the mother lode.”

“When you consider today’s economics in terms of working hours, travel time, chauffeuring the kids around for their activities and various household errands, proximity takes on a much greater significance than in the past,” Ms. Gilbert said.

Defining the ideal type of retail development and of how close or far retail should be from the home depends on whom you ask.

Ms. DesMarais sad that while some buyers prefer smaller, independent shops, others like to be in the thick of things and want to be able to walk to a major chain grocery store or a store like Target.

“It’s driven by personal preference and what people can afford. Most of the urban centers that have a high concentration of retail and food outlets are also close to the Metro,” she said. “To some people, a 10-minute walk to Metro is too far, but for many, that works just fine.”

There is a simple pleasure in being able to walk to the farmers market or the corner store, said Ms. DesMarais, who lives in the Bloomingdale community in Northwest Washington.

“I live in a neighborhood where the local shopkeepers know me, and I value them. There is a nice sense of community,” she said.

In this age of people wanting to simplify their lives, there’s also added value for buyers who purchase in communities with convenient access to retail. Realtors say homes in those neighborhoods sell much faster than ones in isolated communities.

Ms. Gilbert said some of her quickest sales have been in pedestrian-friendly communities and developers are catching on quickly.

“Consider the success of communities like Arts District Hyattsville or National Harbor. They are so popular because the homeowners end up saving time and money and being green to boot,” Ms. Gilbert said. “In terms of value, communities that are more easily accessible have higher market value than other communities. They are more sought after, attract more potential buyers and generally end up getting more purchase offers.”

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