Excerpts from the WSJ:
It’s supposed to be a buyer’s market. Yet, for parents determined to buy in areas associated with top schools, those bargains may be harder to come by. When housing markets go south, “areas with exceptional schools tend to hold their value better than the market overall,” says Michael Sklarz, president of Collateral Analytics, a Honolulu-based firm that specializes in real estate data analysis.
Home prices have dropped in areas with good schools, but the declines are typically nowhere near the levels in their surrounding metro areas. In Irvine, Calif., a city that regularly gets national attention for its quality schools, average price per square foot has fallen 18% since its 2006 peak, but prices in the greater metro area surrounding Irvine fell 33%. In the brainy town of Andover, Mass., prices are down just 4%, versus more than 16% for the Boston metro division.
State assessments, independent ratings from websites like GreatSchools and Education.com and annual magazine rankings of America’s top high schools have not only made it easy for parents to factor school test scores and parent-teacher ratios into their buying decisions, they’ve cemented the relationship between home prices and school quality.
When Florida rolled out its statewide grading system in 1999, the real estate market took note. According to research by David Figlio, who is now a professor of education, social policy and economics at Northwestern University, an A-rated school in Gainesville added about $10,000 to the value of a home there versus a B school. Once a school is graded, the gap often grows. Strong ratings lead to better community support, which in turn leads to better schools. Today, the difference between an A school and B school might easily be $50,000 on a $300,000 house, he says.
That phenomenon isn’t lost on residents of Bellevue, Wash., a Seattle suburb that is home to some of the best schools in the state. “I don’t think there’s ever been a school levy on the ballot here that’s been turned down,” says broker Michael Orbino. Even residents who don’t have school-age children tend to stand behind the schools. It’s not altruism; it’s economics. All things being equal, homes in the Bellevue school district fetch as much as a 15% premium to those just outside of it, he says.
“But there’s more to it than that,” says Mr. Orbino. “Because the land is worth so much more in Bellevue, builders tend to build more expensive homes here,” making the school district that much more expensive to begin with. By Mr. Orbino’s estimate, the prices for single-family homes are down about 10% since the market peak. “But it isn’t a catch-all,” he says. Prices for ultra-luxury homes and condos, which generally aren’t influenced by schools, are down 30% to 40%, he says. So while prices per square foot in Bellevue have fallen slightly more than the Seattle market overall, prices for more family-friendly abodes haven’t necessarily seen the same declines.
Left with few other options, some parents get creative. Bellevue school administrators have seen all kinds of tactics for skirting the district’s policy that students spend at least four nights a week within boundary lines. Common ploys include using a family member’s address or taking over a resident’s utility bill, one of the documents used as proof of residency. The school district has uncovered 35 cases of enrollment fraud this year alone. Other families jump school boundaries by spending four nights a week in a small apartment and going home to a bigger house in another town for the weekends.
Two years ago, Daniel and Dee Shin used an inheritance from Mr. Shin’s father to pay $410,000 for the “cheapest house they could afford” in Bellevue for the sole purpose of securing a spot in the school district for their then 11-year-old daughter, Kayla. The 900-square-foot circa-1955 rambler is “beat up and not insulated very well,” says Mr. Shin, adding that he assumed that paying property taxes on the house would be enough to satisfy the school district’s residency requirements even if the family actually resided in a 2,326-square-foot, four-bedroom home in the nearby town of Renton. Their new neighbors in Bellevue, evidently, didn’t see it that way. They reported the Shins to the school district, and the district gave them an ultimatum: move into the Bellevue district by the time Kayla registers for high school in February, or start the following school year in another district.
The decision was clear for the Shins. They plan to spend the summer insulating the Bellevue home and doing their best to make it livable. Come January, they’ll move into that house, and their extended family will move into the house in Renton.
The Shins considered just sending Kayla to a private school, but Mr. Shins says that suggestion triggered “on demand tears” from Kayla, who doesn’t relish the idea of going to a different high school than her middle-school pals. After all the trouble the couple went through to get Kayla into Bellevue schools, they’re determined to see her graduate from Newport High School, which, Mr. Shin is quick to point out, is consistently ranked among the best in the country.