- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

Quality of life? It’s in the eye of the beholder. Consider Cynthia Taeuber. Tired of a commute that kept getting longer year after year — despite the fact that she continued to live in the same house in College Park and work in Suitland — Ms. Taeuber moved to rural Maryland.

“I take the train into Baltimore to work,” says Ms. Taeuber, “and I can sit on my deck observing the flow of the Susquehanna River. This has certainly improved the quality of my life, except for when I need to go shopping or see a doctor. At least at this stage of life, you can see my priorities,” Ms. Taeuber says.

In contrast, along the banks of the Occoquan River in Virginia’s Prince William County, priorities seem to focus on the quality of schools, safe neighborhoods, big yards, community churches and recreation, says Woodbridge-based Weichert Realtor Wendy Singer.

“Aside from wanting a big yard for the children to play in, [new residents] care a lot about schools, safe neighborhoods, and most of them go to church now. They are in their late 30s, early 40s and appreciate down-home values.

“They are willing to make the commute for the quality of life, including the recreational activities. And, of course, they get more for their money in this area,” Ms. Singer says.

Prince William County’s Lake Ridge community is home to more than 8,000 families in single-family homes, town houses, and condominiums.

In addition to shopping centers, churches, swimming pools, sports fields, tot lots, basketball and tennis courts, and schools, the community features a marina and park that provide fishing, boating, hiking trails, picnic pavilions, playgrounds, and a nine-hole, par-3 golf course.

Quality of life is a big issue in the Washington region, and it has different meanings to different people. Area builders and real estate companies have responded by offering home buyers many options to accommodate their priorities.

As with most purchases in life, when it comes to real estate, quality of life has its price. To get what most buyers want in terms of schools, commuting distance or proximity to cultural amenities in the region, Washington residents have shown they are willing to ante up.

Home buyers today, however, have an ever-increasing ability to determine how a neighborhood or community matches up to criteria they consider important.

The Internet has transformed the home-buying experience. The National Association of Realtors estimates that more than two-thirds of home buyers use the Internet to search for housing.

An increasing number of real estate Web sites feature resource links that provide reports on schools and neighborhoods.

For example, the home buyer interested in the quality of Woodbridge High School can learn a great deal about the school online on Ms. Singer’s Web site (www.wendysinger.com).

The site uses Onboard LLC, one of many real estate reporting services.

Onboard reports that 2,700 students attend Woodbridge High. The average class size is 28. The educational climate is rated “high.” Some 84 percent of students are bound for college. There are 430 instructional computers and a library/media center.

By comparison, the company reports Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring has 3,300 students, an average class size of 17, a “high” educational climate, 62 percent of the student body projected to be college-bound, 1,260 instructional computers, and a library/media center.

A cursory review of the company’s data on area schools, including public and private schools at all levels, indicated significant variances in the key measures used.

Greatschools.net is another free Web-based school report card service that provides the user the opportunity to easily compare schools, including aggregate student assessment scores. The data currently available are from the 2002-03 school year.

The Web site also includes a “discussion” board on which users can post comments about schools.

“Schools are a driving factor behind many home purchases,” says Onboard President and Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Bednarsh. “Good schools have a positive affect on home values.”

Onboard counts large real estate brokers and newspapers among its customers. In addition to providing school information, the company provides reports on communities and local amenities.

“We provide the information consumers have indicated they want. They want to know about the current market when they put their toe out there to see what the market is like,” Mr. Bednarsh says.

Community profiles include data on population, income, crime, weather and environmental conditions. Local amenities feature eating and drinking establishments, shopping, personal services, health care services, attractions and recreation, government, and places of worship.

Mr. Bednarsh says the information is aggregated from public and private sources, with a variety of the information updated every week.

However, he says, the index scores used by Onboard are “intended as a guide.” The company notes that the FBI and local crime reports do not always match ZIP code and municipal boundaries, which may result in scores appearing too high or too low.

Silver Spring is assigned seven ZIP codes with an average crime index for all well below the national average of 100, at 64.4.

“Silver Spring is very large. It’s just not the downtown. It runs north to Burtonsville and encompasses areas all the way up to Wheaton,” says Al Parada, a real estate agent with RE/MAX Sails, specializing in Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

Mr. Parada says the commercial/residential mixed-use Downtown Silver Spring redevelopment project, with its stores, restaurants, live theater, a 20-screen movie theater, and the American Film Institute’s (AFI) Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, has been an attractive and popular addition to the community.

“People want to live in decent areas,” Mr. Parada says. “They want decent schools and decent neighborhoods. They want to be in proximity to D.C. and/or have easy access to transportation to get to work. Unfortunately, they are running up against price.”

Mr. Parada says many home buyers are willing to take on greater financial risks in this seller’s market to get what they are looking for.

A PMI Group Inc. report this spring reported that in terms of “market risk,” the Washington Metropolitan Statistical Area evidences an above-average use of “piggyback” loans by home buyers.

During the first half of 2004, some 42 percent of home-purchase mortgage dollars nationwide involved piggyback loans “used primarily to support the purchase of housing in high-cost areas.” The Washington region posted a 54 percent reliance on secondary loans.

Nevertheless, tremendous growth in outlying areas of the region indicates that there are many buyers whose priorities are tempered or driven by affordability.

“Home buyers are willing to make sacrifices,” Mr. Parada says. “Home buyers will contact me looking at a price range from $300,000 to $350,000 for a home. In that price range, I’m going out as far as Frederick.”

Ms. Taeuber, principal of CMTaeuber & Associates and senior policy adviser at the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute, is an expert on the statistical tools communities can use to enhance the quality of life and, in turn, strengthen the appeal to home buyers.

For example, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) provides governmental jurisdictions with demographic information on which to base development strategies.

“Certainly, whether and when there is a need for schools, including community colleges and universities, and aspects of transportation problems are topics that the ACS can help jurisdictions address,” Ms. Taeuber says.

She says the information can be used in relation to the economy or events in the area, such as the closure of a large plant or military installation, and in conjunction with other information.

The ACS, she says, addresses such questions as: “Do they need a hospital with a wing for obstetrics or for elder care? What is the environmental impact of population growth and the type of population moving into or out of an area? What is the need for business services? Can a neighborhood support a grocery? Does an area have the type of workers that a business is looking for?”

“Since the ACS collects basic demographic information, and because stage of life has an impact on quality-of-life priorities, you can use it in conjunction with other information to increase the depth of understanding about choices,” Ms. Taeuber says.

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