How to Evaluate Schools When Buying a New Home

A family picture: from right to left the mother, the father and the daughter. The father is proud of his girls.

The National Association of Realtors says that more than half of all homebuyers with children under 18 years of age rate the quality of the local school district as a major factor influencing their choice of a neighborhood. So, how do you evaluate schools when searching for your new home?

More than half of all homebuyers with children under 18 years of age rate the quality of the local school district as a major factor influencing their choice of a neighborhood, according to the latest “Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers” from the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

The quality of the schools is more important than affordability or the buyer’s convenience to schools and shopping, even proximity to family and friends, according to the NAR profile. Only convenience to the workplace is more important, but only by 1 percentage point.

But even if the quality of the schools in the area where you decide to buy is not terribly important now, it may become so in a few years. And even if children are not on your radar screen, you may still be better off in a school district that takes education seriously.

All it takes is a little common sense and a few minutes at the computer screen to dig up all the information you need to check out the schools where you’d like to move.

Start With Your Builder

First, I’d start with the builder’s sales rep, who at the very least should know the names of the schools your kids will be attending should you buy in his particular neighborhood. A good salesman will also have tons of information about those schools right at his or her fingertips.

Next, if the community in question already has some families living there, questions about the local school system would be among those I’d ask when I go door-to-door to find out how people like the builder. Yes, knocking on doors is an excellent way to learn. People love to talk about their new homes, good, bad or indifferent. So take a walk and get educated.

Go Online

Now it’s time to take to the computer, where a few key words will unleash a treasure trove of websites and articles. There are even sites dedicated to helping people find the right college.

But here, it’s wise to play around with how you ask your search engine to find what you are looking for. Rather than reinvent the wheel here, it is probably better to point you to sites and articles I found to help you judge the school where you might end up living. So here goes:

Here you can type in a school’s name and see test scores, course offerings and parent/student reviews, among other tidbits on information. The site also allows you to input an address to see all nearby schools, which might come in handy if the school district allows for open enrollment.

Similar site allows users to plug in a school name and see test scores as well as how the school compares to others in the district and the state overall. Of particular interest on this site is an article on the meaning of test scores and another on public versus private schools.

Find out ratings for every school in the area.

This site bills itself as the “top source for parental involvement in schools.” Under the tab “Parent Resources,” the article on “Choosing a School” is well worth the short read.

The sites above are free, but for a fee on this site, you will receive “patented” school ratings and other “data.”

There are other resources beyond websites, too. For example, the Department of Education has a great 52-page booklet called “Choosing a School for Your Child” that can be downloaded from either the 
U.S Department of Education or the U.S. government’s official site or ordered from the Government Printing Office.

The publication has a section on magnet schools and another on charter schools and provides handy checklists on your own child’s needs, the school’s policies and procedures, safety, special activities and parental and community involvement.

It’s also worth pointing out that many schools and school districts have their own websites, where you can find starting times and other information about the place your little darlings will be educated.

Finally, there’s no substitute for actually visiting the school to see first-hand how it operates. Is the school secretary friendly, but professional? Is the school orderly? How is student work displayed? How does the front office communicate with its kids — and how well? How are the kids with special needs treaded?

There are dozens more questions you can ask directly to the principal, depending on what’s important to you. But what’s most important is that you ask enough questions so you feel comfortable that the school you pick — and the house, too — is 
just right for you and your family.

But wait, a couple of other thoughts. First, remember that kids tend to grow up. Little Sally may be in the third grade now, but in a few years she’s off to middle school and then high school. So don’t forget to check out those schools, too, when you are making your decision.

And second, distance from your new house to the school might be an issue. For example, can the kids walk to school? If not, where’s the bus stop? Are you willing — and are able — to drive your kids to school every day?

By weighing these important considerations, you can find a home close to a school that will be ideal for your kids.

Lew Sichelman is a nationally syndicated housing and real estate columnist. He has covered the real estate beat for more than 50 years.

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