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Posted at 05:08 PM ET, 06/12/2011

How a high school sells my house

Want to buy my house? It’s a lovely four-bedroom, 21 / 2-bath colonial, well landscaped. The updated kitchen has stainless steel appliances. There are nice trees and a basketball hoop in back.

But that’s not really what you want to know, is it? Here is the key fact: It is in the attendance zone for Montgomery County’s Walt Whitman High School.

Everyone tells me that is what is going to sell the house. Buyers will ignore the newly upgraded electrical system and the eye-catching vincas my wife planted along the front walk. What they care about is having a local high school that sends many graduates to selective colleges, as Whitman does. Even childless buyers know that means good resale value.

Some say this is partly my fault. I have been ranking the most challenging high schools in America since 1998. I also have a Challenge Index list for every Washington area high school every year. My rankings are at washingtonpost.com/highschoolchallenge.

My wife is concerned that I ranked Whitman only 17th in the region this year, while rival Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School is No. 2. I hastily responded that Whitman is still in the top 1 percent of all U.S. public schools. That’s also what I’m telling potential buyers. What I won’t say is that I think buyers fret too much about the relative strength of local schools. In most of the Washington area, that’s not a problem.

I designed the Challenge Index to alert the 90 percent of U.S. schools not on the national list that they need to improve their college prep programs. Since 75 percent of Washington-area schools meet my criteria and are celebrated on the national list, most people looking for houses here don’t need to worry. That goes for home buyers everywhere in Northern Virginia except Manassas and Fredericksburg, and in all the Maryland suburbs except Prince George’s County.

There are some good schools in the District and Prince George’s, but you have to be careful.

Since I am a potential client, real estate agents don’t tell me this, but they consider the Challenge Index an annoyance. People may be leery of houses near schools low on the list. I rank because the challenge issue would be ignored if I didn’t. But human beings are tribal primates, and we tend to obsess over pecking orders. Even what is (buyers please note) a trivial ranking difference between Whitman and B-CC may concern us.

I investigated the links between public education and home prices for a book in the 1990s. In Westchester County, N.Y., where I lived at the time, real estate firms paid to print attractive four-page profiles full of test score data distributed by high schools in the best neighborhoods. School district reputations varied widely. One real estate agent calculated that clients who bought homes in one neighborhood were spending 35 to 40 percent less than they would for a comparable house in Bronxville. That is still happening. The little high school in that wealthy suburb last year had the highest average SAT score (1970) for any regular-enrollment school in the country.

Similar differences are apparent in Pasadena, Calif., where we are looking for a home. The school system is relatively weak, which means we might get a bargain. The opposite would be true if we tried to buy in neighboring South Pasadena, where the high school is ranked in the top 2 percent on the Challenge Index.

Some buyers may take a Pasadena house and use what they saved to pay the $25,000 tuition for a private school. I would prefer, however, that the Pasadena public schools get better so that when our kids finally put us in a rest home, buyers will have the same assurance they have in most of this area: If they like the house, they shouldn’t worry about the high school.

By  |  05:08 PM ET, 06/12/2011

 
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