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When it comes to buying a new home, one of the first things you should ask is "how's the school district?" It's not just a concern for parents either. A good school district has a big impact on the availability of houses, their prices, and the investment you're making when you buy one. So, how do you find a great house in a great school district? Here's what you need to consider.
In some ways, a "good" school is relative. The best school for your child is one where she can learn and grow in an environment where she feels safe.
Think about what's important to your family when choosing a school district. An elementary school that focuses on experiential learning and play might be a better fit for your child and your family than one that has a high focus on math drills. The same philosophy applies as your child grows. The local middle school might have a fantastic science program, but if your child really excels at social studies, a school that is stronger in that discipline might be a better fit. A family with a long military tradition might favor an area with a strong ROTC program to help prepare your child for the service or to successfully enter a military college like the Naval Academy or West Point.
Just because there's a high school half a mile down the road, that doesn't mean that's the school that you're zoned for. School districts sometimes have odd lines so it's important to double check your zoning instead of assuming. Ask your real estate agent which school the home is zoned for. Or, if you're researching schools before you start your home search, try crowdsourcing school zones and getting feedback on the good, bad, and ugly of each school.
There's no shortage of sites where you can go to find out how your potential new school ranks. Great Schools gives you an easy-to-read score for each school as well as a breakdown on the student body and the academics. Current and past students and parents can review each school as well. And if you decide that's where you want your child to go, you can even find homes for sale right from the site. Remember to look at qualities that can't be quantified by standardized testing. Are the teachers engaged? Are the facilities up-to-date? Do they offer the classes your child needs to be taking?
Be very clear about how important the school system--or even individual schools--is to your home search. Same goes for any compromises you're willing to make. Your real estate agent needs to know if you'd be willing to send your kids to a different public school or even a private school. That leeway might help him find you a home that's tens of thousands of dollars cheaper and meets all the other must-haves on your list.
If the school system is your top priority in your home search, be prepared to make some consolations. You might end up giving up some square feet, that pool might be off the table, or you might need to be farther from the city center. You'll need to spend a lot of time making your list of must-haves for your house--and deciding what truly is a "must-have" and what is just a "nice-to-have".
Once you find the school system chances are you'll need to be prepared to pay extra for it since homes in a good school district tend to be more expensive per square foot to buy. Since your taxes are what helps pay for public schools, they're usually a little higher in areas with good school districts. All that is a trade-off because a great school district usually protects homes from market fluctuations and increases the value of the home faster. Or in other words, when you're ready to sell you'll probably make a good profit even if other homes in your area are selling for less.
If your dream home isn't in a school district that's right for your child, remember there are always alternatives. There's private school, magnet programs, boarding school, and charter schools. Just remember, you'll need to add in the cost of tuition (and any potential tuition raises) into your monthly budget when you're deciding how much house you can afford to buy. It's also unlikely that your alternative school will offer transportation to and from school, so you'll need to be sure you can coordinate that with your work schedule.
Ready to ace your home search? Read our guide on hiring a great real estate agent.