If you're looking for a place to live and have children or want some someday, you should be thinking about a schoolhouse as much as a house. It may be hard to imagine if you aren't there yet, but someday your life may revolve around telling your kids not to stress over state-standardized tests. You'll find yourself talking, texting, phoning and emailing teachers, school administrators, bus drivers and counselors. If the school is the worst, you may rue the day you bought your house.
Meanwhile, your real estate agent can only help you so much in your search for a home near a good school. Due to fair housing laws designed to prevent discrimination, agents and property managers can't offer their opinions on schools. Even in recent years, some real estate agents have been accused of contributing to segregation by steering white homebuyers away from nonwhite neighborhoods by referring to the nearby school as "bad."
If you want to find a home near a good school, it will be up to you to determine the definition of “good.”
Once you find a school you're interested in, you can certainly ask your real estate agent to only show you houses in that particular district. Just know that this may not be the easiest thing for the agent to do if there are numerous districts seemingly smashed together. You can also ask questions about the school related to your house, like whether you'll be paying a school-district tax.
But stick with the facts, and don't ask your real estate agent for his or her opinion on the quality of the schools in the area. Ethically, he or she can't say anything, which may be just as well. As Ryan Gibbons, an agent with RE/MAX Real Estate Limited in Oradell, New Jersey, says, "I may think one school is great, while another may not see it the same way."
So while you're hunting for that special house, there are at least three questions you should get answers to with respect to schools.
What school will your child attend? That sounds so obvious, which is the problem. It's such an obvious question that you may not ask it. Granted, if you're house hunting where there isn't another community for miles, it may be clear which elementary, middle and high school your child will be attend. But it isn't always so evident, says Kathleen Kelly, a home sales consultant for Meritus Homes, a custom homebuilder at The Reserve of St. Charles, a luxury residential community in St. Charles, Illinois.
For instance, Kelly says, "In some larger metropolitan areas like the suburbs of Chicago, community-consolidated school districts can pull from multiple towns, suburbs and villages, meaning district lines aren’t always clear-cut based on the specific name of the town."
She adds that it would be easy for prospective homebuyers to look for a house in a suburb known for its excellent schools, only to find out later that their children will actually be attending a school in a district with a less-stellar reputation.
So when you fall hard for a house, don't let love blind you. Ask your agent what school district the house is in. If he or she doesn't know, the agent can call the board of education to find out, Gibbons says. Or you may prefer to be safe and call yourself.
"Boundary lines for a particular school can change over time," Gibbons says. "Many districts now reserve answers on placement until the child actually applies for admission because of shifting populations in the district."
What do the numbers say about the school? For the most part, the numbers you're probably interested in are test scores. Heidi Waterfield, a San Francisco-based educational consultant for almost a quarter of a century, says that would be one of the first things she would look for when assessing school quality.
"Test scores definitely do not tell the whole story, but you have to start somewhere," she says.
But these aren't the only important numbers. The school's graduation rate and teacher-to-student ratio may also shed light on quality.
Beyond the U.S. News rankings of high schools, which take this data into account, other sites that offer intelligence on schools include SchoolDigger.com and GreatSchools.org. You can also call the school or peruse its website, where test scores may be posted.
What is the school's reputation? As Waterfield notes, test scores are a good place to start, but she says the school's general reputation is important, too. If everyone speaks highly of a school or trashes it, there may be reasons.
Benjamin Beaver, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Patterson Properties in San Angelo, Texas, agrees. "I've certainly observed a growing awareness that there is more to consider when searching for a school district than test scores," he says. "People seem to have more trust for the recommendations of their friends than what can be found on a website."
If you're new to the area and haven't established social connections, you can always tap neighbors for their opinions. You could also see if the principal will meet with you, since there’s no substitute for seeing a school in person when trying to assess it.
If the staff is friendly and accommodating to your needs, that's a good sign. If the library is sparsely stocked or the classes seem to house 40 students to one teacher, those can be red flags. You might also pick up important information on this tour, including whether school buses service your area and what extracurricular activities are available.
And if you have kids, bring them on the tour, Waterfield advises. "Watch their body language and listen to their reactions. It's amazing how easily the right fit will sometimes be easy to recognize," she says.
Whatever you do, ask lots of soul-searching questions, Waterfield suggests. They include:
- Do your children seem to prefer more structured or creative environments? Small or large groups?
- What type of adults do your children respond to best?
- Do you, as parents, want to be involved in your children's educational community, or do you prefer to drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon and let the school take care of the rest?
"Thinking through these questions before researching each school will keep you from feeling lost as you navigate them," Waterfield says.
Of course, someday your child will ask you for help with his homework, and you will stare blankly at it. Maybe it's not such a bad idea to get used to feeling lost now.
Williams got his start working in entertainment reporting in 1993, as an associate editor at "BOP," a teen entertainment magazine, and freelancing for publications, including Entertainment Weekly. He later moved to Ohio and worked for several years as a part-time features reporter at The Cincinnati Post and continued freelancing. His articles have been featured in outlets such as Life magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Cincinnati Magazine and Ohio Magazine.
For the past 15 years, Williams has specialized in personal finance and small business issues. His articles on personal finance and business have appeared in CNNMoney.com, The Washington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes.com and American Express OPEN Forum. Williams is also the author of several books, including "Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever" and "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America"
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Williams lives in Loveland, Ohio, with his two teenage daughters and is a graduate of Indiana University. To learn more about Geoff Williams, you can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow his Twitter page.