- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

Homebuyers often start their home search by thinking about the characteristics they would like to have in their residence, such as a fireplace or a home office or a guest suite on the main level for their in-laws when they visit. However, in these days of fearfulness about the lasting value of a home, buyers might be better served by starting with a neighborhood search rather than a home search. While residing in a particular subdivision is no guarantee that a home will rise in value over time, some neighborhoods have been more resistant than others to plummeting prices.

While local residents often know exactly which community appeals to them and some even want to buy a home on the street where they already live, buyers relocating from outside the Washington area face a tough time narrowing down their choices from city neighborhoods to suburban developments in Maryland and Virginia.

Deb Pestronk, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Reston, says that when she works with buyers, she discusses their budget and makes a list of the 10 most important things they want in a home.

“A lot of people focus first on the features of the home itself, but I tell them, ‘You can always change the inside of your home, but you can’t change the neighborhood,’” says Ms. Pestronk. “Buyers need to think about what is important to them in a community, not just for themselves, but for the future resale value. For families with children, the local amenities (such as swimming pools and recreation centers) can be really important to their quality of life.”

When Realtor Creig Northrop, with Long & Foster Realtors Inc. in Rockville, works with relocation buyers, he meets with them at his office to discuss their preferences and then shows them the highlights of different neighborhoods that fit their budget.

“It’s almost like a tour of the monuments downtown, where we don’t even necessarily look at properties right away,” says Mr. Northrop. “I show them the different areas where they might live and allow them to take a sort of ‘touch-and-feel approach,’ showing them where the conveniences are in different locations.”

Mr. Northrop says that while some buyers want the convenience of living in or near the city, others want the privacy of two acres of land as a retreat from the city.

“A lot of buyers today are very tech-savvy and are knowledgeable about our market before they get here,” says Mr. Northrop. “Our job as Realtors is to show them where they can satisfy their wants and needs.”

Valerie Blake, an associate broker with Prudential Carruthers Realtors in the District, says that she starts by discussing price with her buyers, assuming they have already been prequalified for a mortgage so they know their price range.

“Next, we talk about where the buyers work so we can find a location which will have a short commute by car or by train, depending on their preference,” says Ms. Blake. “Then we talk about what they do in their off hours. Do they like night life, a nice view of woods, or do they need a park where they can walk the dog or play with their kids? Some people don’t mind living over a noisy bar, while others want three acres of land, so we have to talk about where they are willing to compromise.”

Ms. Blake says that a universal issue in the Washington area is access to a Metro station.

“Metro access adds appreciation to any property in an up market, and the depreciation will be less in a down market,” says Ms. Blake.

Ms. Blake also says that parking is a big issue for buyers no matter where they want to live - even if they plan to use public transportation - just so they have the alternative of driving.

“What a lot of relocation buyers do not realize is how important transportation is to this area,” says Pat Kline, a broker with Avery Hess Realtors in Springfield. “Convenience to public transportation and to major roads is crucial. For instance, there used to be one road in and out of Burke, but now there are several routes residents can take. There are still some neighborhoods in Northern Virginia with just one road, which creates huge problems at rush hour.”

Mrs. Kline says buyers need to consider where they are going for work and even what time of day in order to decide which neighborhood will work for them.

“I encourage people to make the potential drive at rush hour so they know what it’s like,” says Mrs. Kline. “With two-earner couples, you have to see which one has the more flexible hours. But it matters what they are used to. I worked with a couple from London who had a two-hour commute each way, so they thought a one-hour commute here was great.”

Associate Broker Dee Rosenberg, with RE/MAX Realty Group in Gaithersburg, says that, typically, her buyers - even when they are new to the area - have some place in mind where they think they want to live, usually based on the easiest way to get to work.

“Buyers need to tell their agent every possible thing they want and then narrow it down based on their price range and priorities,” says Ms. Rosenberg. “Besides the location, it is very important to look at the condition of homes in a community. If the homes are well-maintained, this can keep up the value for your home, too.”

Ms. Rosenberg points out that, under the equal-housing laws, Realtors are not permitted to talk about neighborhood demographics or to characterize neighborhoods one way or another.

“You have to show people whatever they want to see,” says Ms. Rosenberg. “We can tell people to check the crime reports on www.realtor.com and call the police station to get crime statistics or go to www.crimereports.com. If someone wants to see the lowest-priced homes but also wants to be in a safe neighborhood, you can show them the homes and they will see for themselves that they have five locks on the front door or bars on the windows.”

In addition to questions about crime, real estate agents are often questioned about schools. Realtors must direct buyers to the county Web sites, which include test scores for all local schools, rather than steer buyers to one school or another.

“First of all, it is hard to know what to say when someone asks, ‘Which school is best?’ because that means different things to different people,” says Ms. Rosenberg. “Some families want good test scores, but they also want good sports teams or a good band if their kids are interested in those activities.”

Ms. Rosenberg says that if buyers ask to be shown homes in a certain school district, then agents are allowed to show them homes in that area.

While transportation issues are the number one concern in the Washington area, Mrs. Kline says schools are the second most important concern.

“Even if the buyers don’t have kids, the school scores might matter to future buyers when the owners want to sell the home,” says Mrs. Kline.

Beyond the commuting and school topics, buyers are often concerned about the amenities within a community.

“People are very concerned about whether the homeowners association (HOA) fees or the condominium fees are in line with what they include,” says Mrs. Kline. “It can be really hard to sell a place with high condominium fees. Lots of condominium buyers are first-time buyers having a hard time qualifying for a loan, and those fees are included when they try to qualify for a mortgage.”

Ms. Blake says that most people are familiar with HOA fees and are used to paying them and getting something for them.

“Condo fees do, however, really scare some people,” says Ms. Blake. “It’s important that they understand what they are getting for the fees, such as a gym or something else they might pay for otherwise. If the fee is too low, it might mean they will be obligated to pay a special assessment if the roof needs replacing.”

Mr. Northrop says that the appeal of planned communities depends on the stage of life buyers are in and their ages.

“For families in particular, it’s great to have all the facilities and amenities right there,” says Mr. Northrop. “Overall, most people have a positive impression of planned communities. Some people don’t want to pay the fees, especially if they won’t use the amenities, but I explain to them that living in a planned community can be a good investment for the resale value.”

Ms. Rosenberg says that some buyers want to avoid planned communities because of the rules and regulations. It is important to find out if any particular rules will affect something a buyer wants to do, such as have a day care business in their home or make substantial changes to the property.

“Sometimes people think the restrictions are much worse than they really are,” says Ms. Pestronk. “But in our area, most homes built after 1970 or so are in planned communities. People have to decide to compromise on amenities versus restrictions because homes that are not in planned communities usually don’t have the same access to recreational amenities. Those amenities are also appealing to future buyers.”

Mrs. Kline recommends that buyers be very specific about what they want. For example, she worked with a family with a son who plays ice hockey, so they opted to live in Ashburn to be near the hockey rink. Buyers who want to live where everything is walkable will be happier in Clarendon or Ballston.

“Sometimes, what the kids are doing drives where people want to live even more than where the parents work,” says Mrs. Kline.

Mrs. Kline says the best thing buyers can do is to visit a neighborhood at different times of day to see if there are young families with children (for their children to play with) and to look at the condition of the homes.

“Neighborhoods cycle from one phase to the next, and they can begin to look rundown,” says Mrs. Kline. “But sometimes that just means that the homes are more affordable, and new young families will come in and fix up the homes again. It’s important to look at the condition of the homes in a neighborhood and to try to determine if the homes are being improved or not.”

Mrs. Kline says that, generally, buyers might not want to buy on a street with a number of foreclosures, but she says even that should not necessarily scare off a buyer if the community is in a good location near transportation and with good schools.

“Once we get through this current market and the foreclosures are gone, home values should be fine again,” says Mrs. Kline. “The buyers of these foreclosures have to be well-qualified to be approved for a loan and are likely to live in the home and will maintain it.”

Five steps to find the right neighborhood

Play rush-hour roulette. If you know spending more than 30 minutes to and from work is too long in the car (or on the train), then look for a neighborhood that offers a manageable commute.

Know thy neighbor. If you are looking for a very quiet community with no neighbors in sight, be sure you aren’t checking out a neighborhood where houses share a fence in the backyard.

Get schooled on local education. There are a variety of good online resources that offer school comparisons for districts and cities.

How far is it to the closest grocery store? Mapping Web sites (such as maps.yahoo.com) allow you to look up an address and map the commercial amenities around it.

Do a walk through before you buy. Visit the neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon. A weekend visit gives you the best chance to see the most people out of their homes.

Source: Marty Frame, general manager of cyberhomes.com

Web sites with neighborhood information:









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