- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

From researching crime statistics to locating the closest soccer field, finding that perfect community can be challenging when children are involved.

And even though the days of white picket fences and keeping the front door unlocked are long gone, many neighborhoods still retain a comfortable family appeal.

With the right research and a little footwork, a child-friendly neighborhood can be found. Be prepared to use the Internet and to consult your Realtor, law enforcement agencies, school systems — even the local parks and recreation board.

And, as in every real estate transaction, the three biggest factors are still “location, location, location.”

Although some in the real estate industry say plentiful recreation areas, good schools and a safe environment top the list for families with children, others say it’s not so simple. Amy Ritsko-Warren of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors (GCAAR) says that what defines a child-friendly neighborhood for one buyer might not for another.

Still, buyers with children are especially interested in their prospective school system, and rightly so.

School performance can vary among pockets within a neighborhood, but real estate agents say the performance of the local school district often hints at the quality of life in the neighborhood.

Realtor Barbara Owens, broker/owner of the Lady With the Hat Real Estate Co. Inc. in Reston, says checking into the school district is a good idea.

Having raised seven children, Ms. Owens knows what families should take into consideration when planning to move into a new neighborhood.

“Consider the proximity of the school” to avoid having children rush so early to school, Ms. Owens says.

She also suggests that buyers determine if their schools have been named Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence (www.blueribbonschools.com).

Families should consider the size of the school. Ms. Owens says that a smaller school has less competition for athletes, which allows more children, not just the superstars, to be accepted into sports programs. Bigger schools, however, might offer more varied options — orchestra in addition to band, for example.

Buyers should find out how many extracurricular activities are available for students and whether students take advantage of them.

“The first thing out of everyone’s mouth is: ‘How good are the schools?’” says Nancy Vaughn of Anne Arundel Properties in Annapolis.

As a Realtor, Ms. Vaughn says she is not allowed to discuss the quality of schools in a particular neighborhood with her clients, but she says she can help point clients to the right path to obtain that information.

“Buyers can contact the county school system to receive information packages,” Ms. Vaughn says. “Some school districts have information available online for review.”

Real estate agents also suggest that buyers look online for more detailed information, such as school test scores, student population and student-teacher ratios.

Schools aren’t the only factor.

Buyers should check the variety of retailers and maintenance of local amenities for more clues to determine the quality of the neighborhood.

Real estate professionals advise buyers to find out if there are playgrounds and community centers nearby. They suggest taking a look at park district activities, and checking out the closest library, movie theater and shopping mall.

With children, the more activities within walking or biking distance, the better.

In addition, buyers should find out if the prospective community has a quality public transportation system — especially important for adolescents who haven’t reached driving age.

The economic development board that covers a particular neighborhood is another good resource. Real estate agents say buyers can consult the development authorities to find out plans for the community, including whether any family friendly businesses are moving to the area.

If quality family time is important and folks would rather spend less time commuting to work and more time with the family, real estate agents suggest taking a few test-drives during rush hour to be sure. That drive of 30 minutes to the office on Saturday might take an hour Monday morning.

Something as simple as neighborhood sidewalks can make a difference. Sidewalks are important and promote family outings, Ms. Owens says. Some communities built 30 or 40 years ago in the Washington suburbs aren’t connected with sidewalks.

Sidewalks are a matter of safety, Ms. Vaughn says, “so that families can take afternoon walks together or for young parents to walk their baby carriages.”

Ms. Vaughn says that learning a family’s particular interests can help her better decide what type of neighborhood they should consider.

“When I meet with clients I try to discuss what their needs are and what activities the family is interested in,” Ms. Vaughn says. She says she asks about the ages of the children and whether they’re into basketball or roller-skating, for example.

Even though the idealized suburban neighborhoods of “Leave It to Beaver” or “The Donna Reed Show” are as dated as reruns in black-and-white, neighbors still can play a role in whether a community is child-friendly. It can be a good idea to knock on a few doors to consult residents in the prospective neighborhood about issues relating to the family. Buying a home is one of the most important investments a family can make, and real estate professionals say buyers can’t be too careful.

“I would describe a child-friendly neighborhood as a community with friendly and caring neighbors, with parents who are very involved with their children’s school and outside curricular activities,” says Patricia Dowtin of Coldwell Banker Residential in Camp Springs.

Ms. Dowtin says buyers are also interested in religion.

“A church that will meet their spiritual needs is often an important consideration, too,” she says, and the closer the church is to home, the better. Attending a neighborhood church’s services is another way to meet prospective neighbors and their families.

Ms. Vaughn encourages her clients to drive through the neighborhood to get impressions.

“Once the buyers find a community that they really like, I always suggest that they drive by the neighborhood at different times of the day and different days of the week,” says Ms. Vaughn. This allows people to see the neighbors, gauge traffic patterns and find out if children in the community are out playing.

It is important to visit the neighborhood at different times because what may look like a quiet, normal community in the afternoon may appear completely different at night, she says.

Keeping children safe is a top priority.

Police departments can provide crime statistics for a specific neighborhood, or they can point you toward that information at another law enforcement agency. Ms. Owens says people can check to see if any sexual predators are registered as living in the immediate area. Police agencies can help you determine how to find out. The Internet offers some sex offender registry services for a fee. These can be found by using a search engine.

In addition, it’s a good idea to talk with prospective neighbors.

Other clues may also help give folks a realistic picture of the neighborhood.

“Some signs of a neighborhood that may not be very child-friendly might be people loitering about during the day, heavy traffic, abandoned cars, and trash or bottles thrown about the sidewalks and yards,” Ms. Dowtin says.

Searching for a new neighborhood can be stressful, but by taking steps to ensure that your family is moving to a desirable location, you can rest easier.

“Some communities are more dedicated to families than others. Try to find the ones that meet your family’s needs,” Ms. Vaughn says.

On the Web:

www.greatschools.net offers basic school data and test scores.

www.realtor.com links to state associations and offers a neighborhood search engine.

www.homestore.com has a Community Close-up search tool.

• quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html has data for cities and towns with more than 25,000 people.

www.neighborhoodscout.com provides neighborhood searches using more than 60 criteria.

www.mapquest.com provides directions and distances between neighborhood amenities.

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