- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

The real estate agent’s tone becomes almost reverent as she ushers a young couple through the rooms of a center-hall Colonial in Bethesda.

It’s not a particularly distinctive home. In fact, it’s the kind of place you see in neighborhoods throughout the Washington area, from Rockville to Reston.

However, there is something that makes this particular Colonial special.

“You know, this is a wonderful neighborhood,” she says. “This is the Whitman-Pyle area.”

In the competitive arena that is the Washington area’s real estate market, schools — their ratings and reputation — are one more factor to toss into the mix.

Walt Whitman High School and Thomas W. Pyle Middle School are the cream of the crop of Montgomery County’s highly regarded public school system.

Conventional wisdom has always held that good schools can pull homeowners into certain neighborhoods and away from others.

“As an agent, I try to give people as much information as possible,” says Ron Malota of Long & Foster’s Fairfax office. “People want the better schools.”

The implication has always been that having the right sort of school in your neighborhood reaps dividends in terms of your home’s value.

“A good school makes it easier to sell a home,” says Walt Molony, spokesman for the National Association of Realtors. “Having a good school in the neighborhood can definitely increase home values.”

How much do schools affect the price of your home when you decide to buy or sell? How can you find out how the schools in your neighborhood are doing? Most of all, how important should the neighborhood school be in your home-buying decision?

It all depends — on your lifestyle, your expectations and your pocketbook.

“Schools are among the top two or three factors that home buyers take into account,” Mr. Molony says.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), neighborhood schools rank somewhere “near the top” of a collection of quality-of-life issues that can have an impact on home buyers. The 2003 National Association of Realtors Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers listed schools as a deciding factor for 17 percent of home buyers.

What else matters? Proximity to jobs is one factor. Many people simply don’t want to make long commutes. In a 2002 NAR survey, 41 percent of respondents said being close to job and school was a significant factor in their home-buying decisions, and 25 percent said quality of schools was a significant factor.

Why the low numbers for schools? According to census data, only about one-third of all households send their children to public schools.

“For the subset of people with school-age kids or those who plan on having a family, schools can be one of the most important factors,” says Keene Taylor Jr., president of the Washington Association of Realtors. “It’s the same kind of impact as proximity to Metro or a nice park or playground. It’s significant for those for whom it matters.”

Couples without children, singles and parents who send their children to private school may count the presence of a highly ranked school as somewhat less compelling.

Granted, it is a bit difficult to separate the value added by a good school from the other characteristics of a neighborhood that might lead home buyers there. While prospective buyers might like the neighborhood school, they might like other aspects of the neighborhood even more.

That’s why certain areas in the District have very expensive homes, although the neighborhood schools might not have the best reputation.

Still, the District does lose some residents because of school quality, Mr. Taylor says.

“People with kids move out as their kids approach middle school,” he says. “I’m sure the schools kept a fair number of people from looking in the District in the first place.”

However, as development moves ahead in the District, that situation may change.

“There are a lot of great places to live here,” Mr. Taylor says. “There’s a lot more development in part of the city where you didn’t used to see high-value real estate, and the better we can make the schools, the better for everyone.”

Whatever the locality, interest in school performance is at an all-time high, thanks in part to new systems of accountability, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, that closely tie school rankings to performance on standardized tests.

“I always show people SAT scores and let them know which high school serves the neighborhood and what the feeder schools are,” Mr. Malota says.

How will a high-performing school affect the price of your home?

According to David Brasington, writing in a 1999 article on school-quality measures and housing values in the Journal of Real Estate Research, the housing market values high test scores, high per-pupil expenditures and low student-teacher ratios.

Access is easier than ever to school ratings, test scores, expenditures and classroom size, as well as to other factors, such as the number of free or reduced-rate breakfasts and lunches provided. The Internet has provided a number of ways to get to them.

“The Web has really improved the ability of people to get information on a school,” Mr. Taylor says. “People shop the neighborhood.”

Several private Web-based companies will provide you with information about neighborhood schools — for a fee. At School Match (www.schoolmatch.com), a report on Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, for example, will cost you $10. Information on the entire school system costs $34.

On www.realtor.com, the National Association of Realtors also offers a service where prospective buyers can call up school profiles by ZIP code.

Sometimes, though, if you want to find out how neighborhood schools are doing, it’s better not to ask your Realtor.

“Realtors suffer from the perception that the job requires them to be expert in all things,” Mr. Taylor says. “They can tell you what the schools in the neighborhood are, but they should refer you to the appropriate jurisdiction or school-board member for information about the quality of the schools.”

In the Washington metropolitan area, information about test scores and other factors influencing school ratings is available on the Web directly from the school districts for free.

Montgomery County Public Schools, for example, offers information about class size, number of students receiving special services and operating costs. Its “Schools at a Glance 2003” (www.mcps.k12.md.us/departments/accountability/saag) allows viewers to home in on individual schools.

Walt Whitman High School, for example, is listed with mean SAT scores of 633 math and 609 verbal, above the county average of 560/535 and well above the national norm of 516/504. Meanwhile, 99 percent of Pyle Middle School’s students passed the reading portion of the Maryland Functional Tests on their first try, and 93 percent passed the math section on first administration.

That would explain the awe in the real estate agent’s voice when she talked about the schools in this neighborhood.

Educators and other experts caution about placing too much emphasis on test scores, though.

“There are a lot of good schools that don’t have good test scores,” Mr. Taylor says, “but they can offer good, safe, learning environments that people appreciate.”

Location also influences perceptions of quality.

“A quality high school in D.C. is not as well-perceived as a quality high school in the suburbs,” Mr. Taylor says.

What if the school is new?

“An enhancement of facilities is always a plus,” Mr. Taylor says. “People assign more value to that school.”

Of course, choosing a neighborhood based on perceived school quality is an option that’s not always available to all home buyers. Those in the lower income brackets might be unable to afford homes near the best-performing schools.

That brings up a chicken-and-egg question. Even if high-performing schools drive up home values, wealthier neighborhoods tend to have higher-performing schools, anyway, making it exceedingly difficult to assign a specific portion of home values to school quality.

What about private schools? In certain neighborhoods in the District, for example, residents protest whenever a private school expands its enrollment. Could the presence of private schools actually depress home values?

“I doubt it,” says Mr. Taylor. “In fact, the expansion could add to the value of the overall neighborhood. It’s more a livability issue for the adjoining neighbors.”

So what’s the bottom line? How much value is added if your house is near a high-performing school?

Not as much as you might be expecting, Realtors say.

“Theoretically, there could be a portion of a percent or even 1 or 2 percent in some places,” Mr. Taylor says, “but given real estate prices right now, even a half-percent difference could be a significant difference.”

More info:

Maryland

• Anne Arundel County Public Schools: www.aacps.org

School profiles: www.mdreportcard.org/lea.asp?K=02AAAA

SAT results: www.aacps.org/aacps/boe/instr/testg/sat_2.htm

• Frederick County Public Schools: www.fcps.org/schools.htm

(test results available as Adobe Acrobat files)

• Howard County Public Schools: www.howard.k12.md.us

(test results available as Adobe Acrobat files)

• Montgomery County Public Schools:

www.mcps.k12.md.us/departments/accountability/saag

(test results available as Adobe Acrobat files)

• Prince George’s County Public Schools:www.pgcps.pg.k12.md.us

Test results from Maryland State Department of Education Web site:

msp.msde.state.md.us/lea.asp?K=16AAAA

Virginia

• Virginia School Report Card: www.pen.k12.va.us/VDOE/src

• Standards of Learning results: www.pen.k12.va.us/VDOE/Reports/current

• Alexandria City Public Schools: www.acps.k12.va.us

Test scores: www.acps.k12.va.us/testscores.php

• Arlington County Public Schools: www.arlington.k12.va.us

SAT scores:

www.arlington.k12.va.us/admin_serv/plan_eval/downloads/sat.pdf

(Adobe Acrobat file)

• Fairfax County Public Schools:www.fcps.k12.va.us

School profiles and test scores:

www.fcps.k12.va.us/DEA/schoolprof/division.htm#HIGH

• Loudoun County Public Schools: www.loudoun.k12.va.us

Test scores: www.loudoun.k12.va.us/testing

• Prince William County Public Schools: www.pwcs.edu

School profiles:

www.pwcs.edu/Schools/schoolprofiles/profilelist.htm

Test scores:

www.pwcs.edu/planning/AssmEval/AssmEval.htm

• Spotsylvania County Public Schools:

www.spotsylvania.k12.va.us/info/index.htmSOL report: https://www.pen.k12.va.us/VDOE/Reports/current/(No direct link to test results available.)

• Stafford County Public Schools: www.pen.k12.va.us/Div/Stafford

Test scores: www.pen.k12.va.us/Div/Stafford/scores.html

District

• District of Columbia Public Schools: www.k12.dc.us

SAT scores:

www.k12.dc.us/dcps/data/SAT/SAT%20School%20Data%202003.pdf

(Adobe Acrobat file)

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