By Elyse Glickman
You can change certain physical aspects of a family home, but it’s not so easy to change the local school district, so be sure to consider the educational resources in the area before you buy.
Life has grown oh-so-much more intense since the days when the picket fence-encircled house with nearby playground and nice neighbors was the be-all and end-all of the American Dream. With schools and school districts playing a more critical role in helping determine children’s long-term futures, the dream has become more complex and weighted in reality.
As Jeff Onofrio, director of Renovation Lending at Annie Mac in Mount Laurel, N.J., sees it, a family with young children often decides where to buy a home based quite a bit on the available school district.
“As a father with two young children, that’s one thing we took into consideration before we moved,” says Onofrio.
After a bit of research, “we ended up at a different location in the same town we started in because we liked the lifestyle and the educational opportunities for our children. In many respects, a buyer can change certain aspects of a physical home, but the actual school district is the one thing that is not so easy to change.”
The age of the children, according to Onofrio, may also play a role in which neighborhoods to explore.
“A family with a young child, under the age of 2, may be looking at buying a starter home and then eventually consider moving up to a more permanent home,” he continues. “When the kids approach school age, that’s when parents become concerned with school districts, looking at the grammar school they will attend and then looking ahead to high school.
“The older the kids are, the more permanent the second home purchase should be.”
Onofrio also stresses that no matter how well-informed and well-read your real estate agent is, the responsibility remains the parents’ to do their due diligence on prospective neighborhoods. Parents will find there’s a lot of information online, not just about different school districts, but also reports, studies and qualifications of individual schools.
“Parents should look into the funding required for the schools, finding out in each district what services or programs are available” — such as programs for special needs children, arts programs and computer facilities.
Onofrio brings up the current crisis with the Philadelphia School District as well as the reality facing many families about not being able to afford a neighborhood with the best educational options.
However, he asserts that where there’s a will, there is a way. One way his company helps out is through renovation loans. This loan allows a family to move into a “fixer-upper” or small home in the desired neighborhood with a good district. “This allows families to get into the school district faster and at a more reasonable price, with the added benefit of potentially building equity into their homes and increasing the overall value of the property,” he says.
Although Michael Silverman, managing director of Integra Realty Resources in Philadelphia, is a veteran appraiser of commercial real estate, he learned from personal experience with his growing family that when researching neighborhoods, you have to consider commerce and lifestyle beyond the home. He says he believes that young parents should not only be educated on what schools are nearby, but also what retail and residential developments are thriving or are slated for the area.
“We lived at 18th and Locust near Rittenhouse Square with restaurants and shopping,” Silverman recalls. “It was a nice lifestyle. However, soon after my daughter was born, we moved to Bala Cynwyd. In retrospect, if I knew more about both the educational options for our daughter in Center City and Bala Cynwyd, we may have stayed in Center City a little longer because there are several education alternatives, not just in the Philadelphia public school system but also among private schools, charter schools and other forms of schooling.”
As director of marketing and product development at Bridgeway Homeschool Academy in Allentown, Kimberly Kulp notes that “when choosing a home, most parents put a big emphasis on the school district, and while it is not the wrong thing to do, it is not necessarily the best place to start for some families.
“Studies show that often the best and most critical learning happens outside the classroom. Therefore, building smarter kids who can make informed decisions and think for themselves starts with parents understanding what makes their child tick.”
Kulp advises parents to pay attention to who their child is, beyond what a school or school district has to offer. She notes that if you have a child who embraces change, you’ve got more freedom. “Put your child at the heart of what you’re looking for,” Kulp says emphatically.
“Because your child spends eight hours a day in the classroom, it is critical to evaluate a school or district in light of who children are and what they love to do.
“For example, if your child is focused on the arts and is highly creative, and a school district does not put an emphasis on the arts, your child will have a hard time adjusting.”
She also advises that working in visits to school districts and classrooms while house-hunting and seeing what they emphasize is also a good strategy.
Although Kulp says personality of the children should be the strongest thing to go on, age is also a factor. She reasons that while elementary school-age children are fairly adaptable, it is more difficult for middle school and high school students to adjust as they leave old friends behind and have to make new friends.
After all is said and done, it is best, agree the experts, that parents do their own homework before deciding how much a school district will determine where they live.
Elyse Glickman is a West Coast writer, This article originally appeared in “Real Estate,” a special section in the Jewish Exponent.