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The Price, the Commute, the Schools

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

One of the earliest decisions a home shopper must make is where to look.

This can be particularly challenging in a sprawling region such as the Washington area.

"You move into a neighborhood to get more than housing," said Geoffrey Thornton, an agent with Weichert Realtors in the District.

For many people the most important factors are price, commute and, if they have children, schools. Other considerations include the types of services and amenities nearby, as well as the style of housing.

How do you find the right neighborhood for you?

"Our budget helped us decide," said Maureen McGregor, who bought a townhouse in the District's H Street NE corridor in October. "My husband and I both work at nonprofits. We're not the Rockefellers."

Amy Mermelstein, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Bethesda who frequently works on corporate relocations, said she asks her clients to list 10 must-have items. "That rules out a lot of stuff."

Robyn Burdett, an associate broker for Re/Max Allegiance in Reston, said she starts by asking her clients how much time they are willing to spend commuting. Then, within those limits, she looks to see what houses are available in their price ranges.

People frequently are forced to make trade-offs, Burdett said, and to think carefully about what they value. "Do they want a little more house and a little more commute, or a smaller house but . . . be at home by 6 o'clock every night?"

Thornton agreed that commuting time is a major factor, "especially if you have to get on the Mixing Bowl or 270, or heaven forbid, the Beltway."

Because of traffic, Thornton said, many people place a high priority on being close to Metro. For those clients, he sits down with a map with Metro stations and discusses the options.

Access to Metro was a big factor for McGregor and her husband, whose house is a 10-minute walk from Union Station.

No matter how you plan to get to work, you need to test the commute, Burdett said. "Go back at rush hour and drive the area. See how it's going to be." This will also give you a chance to see the overall traffic patterns, she said. "Some neighborhoods are major cut-throughs."

Different neighborhoods have different types of housing. In urban areas, you're likely to find more condos and townhouses. Single-family houses are more plentiful in the suburbs. Certain styles, such as Colonials or ramblers, tend to be clustered.

The style of house is important to people, Mermelstein said. "Most people will migrate toward a house like the one they grew up in, and many people have specific needs, such as being on one level."

Easy access to shopping and recreation can also be important. Most people, Thornton said, want to be close to grocery stores and their banks. "That's critical."

But some people are also interested in restaurants, parks and nightlife.

McGregor said that part of what drew her to the H Street corridor is how close it is to Eastern Market and Capitol Hill. "It's great for when family and friends visit."

For detailed information about schools and crime, check local government Web sites. Co-workers can also be a good source of such information, Mermelstein said. Many community associations publish helpful newsletters and Web sites.

Online resources can be especially useful for people moving from outside the area. Burdett worked with four such families last year, and was impressed with the amount of research they were able to do from afar. "By the time they got here, they knew generally where they were going to be."

But don't depend entirely on the Internet, said Burdett, who has been a real estate agent in Northern Virginia for 20 years. "Go drive around the neighborhood. Talk to the neighbors. The people that are standing out in their yards in the evening are going to be a better source than me" about what it's like to live in a place, she said. "Don't hesitate to get involved because this is going to be where you're living."

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