How to Find an A+ School Without Spending Too Many Gs on Housing

Does home shopping feel more like school shopping? You’re not alone. According to a survey cited in “Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate,” 91 percent of respondents said school boundaries are an important part of finding the perfect home.

Most U.S. schools are funded by state and local property taxes, which generally means high-quality schools go hand-in-hand with high home values. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend a ton on housing to send your kid to the school you want.

Before you embark on your search, consider these tips.

Stop saying, “I want a good school”

Telling your real estate agent that you want to live near a “good school” might be counterproductive. Most real estate agents aren’t allowed to value one school over another because it might be perceived as steering someone toward a certain neighborhood.

Instead, try to uncover the right school for your child’s needs and interests.

“If your kid is interested in math, the number of AP [Advanced Placement] classes in math is more important than overall test scores,” said real estate agent Leslie Ebersole of BRIXGroup at Baird&Warner.

At the end of the day, it’s more important to find the right school than the one with the best reputation.

Do your homework & go to class

Don’t just rely on word of mouth, especially if you’re not familiar with an area. Most local municipalities or states have online resources like IllinoisReportCard.com with a wealth of information such as school performance for individual subjects and class sizes.

Once you’ve read up, go and actually visit the schools you’re considering.

“Most of these schools are set up for parent visits,” Ebersole said. “Sit in on a class. Look at the different activities. If you have a kid who loves music, go to the band practice.”

Jon-David Lenard of Douglas Elliman Real Estate says this is particularly important because school reviews can be biased.

“I try to caution against [reading] reviews in newspapers. They’re written by people who may just want to sing a school’s praises or have a bone to pick without realizing the consequences for the buying public,” he said.

Befriend your agent’s friends

After you’ve narrowed down your school choices, work with an agent who’s well-connected in the community. While your agent can’t advise one school over another, he or she will know parents who can share their firsthand experiences with different schools.

“A great Realtor® knows people everywhere,” Ebersole said. “If you are moving, I can look up names and phone numbers of people with kids in the school you want.”

Search by school district, not by town

A hyper-local agent will also know school boundaries — and whether there are any affordable pockets with homes for sale.

“I’m out in the [Chicago] suburbs,” Ebersole explained. “St. Charles has schools that many people want their kids to attend, but there are homes on the edges of other towns in the St. Charles school district. Often, the prices here are lower.”

And this isn’t just the case in Chicago. By combining GreatSchools rankings with school district boundary information for elementary and high schools, Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff and Chief Economist Stan Humphries found this to be a larger trend.

“Looking at the combined data, sure enough, we found that pricey neighborhoods aren’t the only places with good schools,” they write. “In fact, all across the country, you can find excellent schools in relatively cheap adjacent neighborhoods.”

To make sure you’re seeing the full real estate picture, search homes by school boundaries, not town or city names.

Opt for the generic-brand neighborhood

Like the latest fads, today’s hot neighborhood won’t necessarily be hot tomorrow.

“In the Smithtown school district last year, one community was really hot with prices going up. This year, that area cooled off and another had bidding wars going on,” Lenard said. “Try to figure out where the hot neighborhoods are and perhaps go in the other direction.”

It’s easy to think that the hot neighborhoods have something extra going for them, but a lot of times hype is driving the uptick.

“Hype around school districts does affect home values,” Lenard said. “It’s like a brand. I know the pharmacy brand is the exact same thing as Claritin®, but I wrestle with this all the time. It’s up to the buyer at the end of the day to decide what they want.”

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