- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Families with children may focus their home search on whether the location offers good schools and other children with whom to play. They might also be interested in a neighborhood’s crime rate.

Such buyers must be savvy, ask the right questions and do their own intensive research to determine if the neighborhood meets their specific criteria for being “family-friendly.”

Buyers can depend on a licensed real estate agent to walk them through the complex buying process, show them houses within their price range and provide them with relevant facts about the homes. But they can’t expect an agent to tell them if a neighborhood is “child friendly” and offers the best environment for their young ones.

Agents must be circumspect when discussing such topics, so as not to run afoul of fair housing laws. These federal, state and local laws are meant to protect buyers from discrimination in housing based upon their familial status, says Brenda Small, a Realtor and Uptown Office Manager with Prudential Carruthers in the District.

Ms. Small says customers often ask about the demographics, racial or ethnic makeup of an area, and whether a neighborhood is safe.

“These are very touchy questions and inappropriate for a Realtor to directly answer,” she says.

Ms. Small says she focuses on her clients by interviewing them about their preferences and needs to most effectively act as an adviser without directly answering these type of inquiries.

“It is acceptable for a Realtor to pose questions such as: How many will be in your household? What neighborhoods do you like best? Are schools a consideration?” Ms. Small says.

Ed Urbaniak, a Realtor with Weichert, Realtors in Fairfax, says the term “family-friendly” could be perceived as “dangerous” when discussing a home. It has varying connotations, he says, and could be misinterpreted.

When buyers say they want a house in an area conducive to raising a family, Mr. Urbaniak asks them to define their vision and list the services they want.

“It means different things to different people,” Mr. Urbaniak says. “To someone with teen kids, it might be more important to be close to the high school and community center. For families with toddlers, parents might want a house in a cul-de-sac, so their children can play in the street.”

Yet agents won’t leave their customers out in the cold. As experts on the housing market and resources in their area, they point their buyers to relevant Web sites to help them analyze a neighborhood’s amenities and gather pertinent information.

Charles Sullivan, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Gaithersburg, says he often works with parents whose primary consideration is the quality of the area schools.

“Some families, rich and poor, will outright reject certain neighborhoods because of their perception of school quality,” Mr. Sullivan says.

He says buyers are often willing to pay “ridiculous prices” for homes in specific school districts. For example, he says, in some of the older communities off River Road, located in the Whitman High School cluster, lackluster homes routinely sell for $600,000.

“In most parts of the United States, $600,000 will buy a palace; in Bethesda, it buys a [house near a] bus stop for a 6:25 a.m. pickup,” Mr. Sullivan says.

Mr. Sullivan says he recommends that buyers focused on schools consult individual school Web sites and county public school Web sites that post test scores.

He also advises them to contact the schools directly and meet with the principals.

In addition to suggesting Web sites and contacts, agents also provide precise details about the house and its surroundings, such as the distance to the nearest schools, if there is a day-care center nearby and whether there are playgrounds or bike trails in the vicinity.

“I provide as much information as I can, based on the facts,” says Birgit Klare, a Realtor with Samson Realty in Chantilly.

Ms. Klare says there are questions buyers can ask and investigations they can do themselves to get a feel for a community’s atmosphere and how welcoming it is to children.

“They have to do research themselves,” she says.

Ms. Klare says she believes buyers will benefit from previewing the subdivision they are interested in, taking a drive in the area during the day, after school, and on a Saturday morning.

She suggests they look for bicycles, skateboards and basketball hoops, to get a perspective on whether many families live there and the age group of the children.

Parents can also visit a local community center and ask about featured children’s activities, such as swimming lessons. They can ask if the agent knows about block parties in the neighborhood and if the residents have Halloween or holiday parties.

Buyers also can visit libraries, parks and religious institutions directly. If safety is a concern, prospective buyers can ask whether there is an active neighborhood watch committee that meets with police on security issues. They also can visit with the area police station or sheriff’s office to inquire about crime in the community.

Buyers can research statistics on the Internet and determine if known sex offenders are registered in the neighborhood.

Denise Champion, a Realtor with Long & Foster in the District, agrees that buyers today have to be their own advocates and conduct inquiries on their own to ensure their unique family needs are met.

“People really have to do due diligence,” Ms. Champion says. “You have to get out there and do your own look and see. I can show you houses all day long, but you are buying the neighborhood.”

Ms. Champion advises buyers to go to open houses and not to just drive around a neighborhood they are considering, but to actually get out of their car and try to talk to residents.

She says if people are enthusiastic and proud of where they live, they are usually very happy to talk about their experiences. “I find that people are usually very open,” Ms. Champion says.

Interviewing other families or parents in the area can provide details that the buyers would not obtain otherwise, Ms. Champion says.

She says she worked with a client who gained some helpful tips by chatting with a neighborhood resident.

“He actually invited us in and told us that there were baby sitters in the neighborhood,” Ms. Champion says.

In the final analysis, families with children have to determine their own critical needs and their comfort level with a neighborhood.

Ms. Small says that regardless of whether buyers have children, the price of the house still takes precedence over other concerns because if a family can’t afford a home, all of the other issues are insignificant.

“The first priority is having a comfortable monthly housing payment and the belief that they are getting what they are paying for,” she says.

More info:

m The Fair Housing Act (Title 8) precludes real estate agents from directly answering many questions families might have about their neighborhoods. Read the law yourself. (https://www.usdoj.gov/crt/housing/title8.htm)

Other sites that can help with neighborhood research:

m www.hometownlocator.com Includes census, demographic and income data, parks, schools, libraries, hospitals, airports, hotels, environmental conditions, local newspapers, media outlets, employment, maps, coordinates and aerial photos.

m www.nsopr.gov is the National Sex Offender Public Registry’s Web site

Sites with information about area schools:

Maryland

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

School profiles: www.mdreportcard.org/

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

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

(test results available as Adobe Acrobat files)

m Howard County Public Schools: https://www.hcpss.org/

(test results available as Adobe Acrobat files)

m Montgomery County Public Schools:

www.mcps.k12.md.us/

(test results available as Adobe Acrobat files)

m Prince George’s County Public Schools:

www.pgcps.pg.k12.md.us

Test results from Maryland State Department of Education Web site:

https://msp.msde.state.md.us/

Virginia

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

m Standards of Learning results: www.pen.k12.va.us/VDOE

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

Test scores: www.acps.k12.va.us/mes/tests.php

m 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)

m Fairfax County Public Schools: www.fcps.k12.va.us/index.shtml

School profiles and test scores: www.fcps.edu/profiles/

m Loudoun County Public Schools:

https://cmsweb1.loudoun.k12.va.us/loudoun/site/default.asp

Test scores: https://cmsweb1.loudoun.k12.va.us/50990510142757/site/default. asp?509Nav=|&NodeID;=858

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

School profiles:

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

Test scores:

www.pwcs.edu/accountability/Testing/

m Spotsylvania County Public Schools: www.spotsylvania.k12.va.us/

Testing information: www.spotsylvania.k12.va.us/instruction/Testing_Results/testing_information.htm

m Stafford County Public Schools: ww.pen.k12.va.us/Div/Stafford/

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

District

m District of Columbia Public Schools: www.k12.dc.us/dcps/home.html

Test scores:

webb.k12.dc.us/apds/APDSSummaryReports.asp


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