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Mapping Transportation Costs for Home Buyers

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By Elizabeth Razzi
Sunday, April 13, 2008

When you're stuck in Beltway traffic burning $3-a-gallon gasoline to creep along at walking speed, it offers time to think. Would it be easier if I left home earlier? Would I be better off riding a train? How bad will my commute be in five years? Would life be easier and cheaper if I found a job in Pittsburgh or Nashville or some other place where the roads aren't as crowded and the homes aren't so expensive?

A new Web-based tool developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago-based urban development think tank, can help put facts behind those daydreams. The CNT developed a Web site, at http://htaindex.cnt.org, that takes into account household expenditures for transportation, along with home prices, to estimate whether a home is truly affordable for households with moderate incomes.

Academics at the CNT argue that a home isn't really affordable if its location forces a household to devote an excessive amount of the family budget to transportation. How much is excessive? They say 18 percent of the area's median pretax income is typical; lowering that to 15 percent would be better. That's on top of the 30 percent of pretax income that they estimate as an affordable budget for a home's mortgage principal and interest plus property taxes and homeowners' insurance, which lenders call PITI.

With gasoline prices nearing $3.50 per gallon and Metro fares that recently increased by the largest amount in the transit system's history, keeping Washington-area transportation costs below those thresholds is only going to become more difficult.

The Web site is a data fest even by wonk standards. It's a map-based tool offering information on housing and transportation costs for 52 metropolitan areas, including the Washington-Baltimore area. You can zoom in on individual neighborhoods and pull up U.S. Census information on the percentage of neighborhood residents who use mass transit, their average monthly spending on transportation, the number of wage-earners and cars per household, and other data. The Web site also displays nearby subway and commuter rail lines and stations.

The interactive maps are the type of thing urban planners will pick apart with gusto, but they're also an interesting tool for people pondering a move. It wouldn't be surprising if the information is eventually woven into real estate search tools, such as the local multiple-listing service or Zillow.com.

Other housing-affordability measures ignore the need to travel, CNT President Scott Bernstein said. Travel consists of more than your daily commute. "Only 20 percent of the trips we take in America are to work," Bernstein said. All those other little trips, runs to the grocery store, Little League games and the dry cleaner's, actually make up the bulk of our travel.

It's no surprise that most neighborhoods in the District score high on combined affordability. Despite a lack of grocery stores in too many neighborhoods, many have good access to bus and subway service, retail shops and places of worship that are within walking distance or a short drive away.

What is surprising is that pockets of combined home/transit affordability are scattered across the far-out suburbs that are usually assailed for their dependence on automobiles. This reflects the way development has been happening in some of these communities, where jobs, shopping and recreation are developed near each other, creating little urban-ish centers out in the 'burbs.

For example, the map shows splotches of affordability -- where housing and transportation costs combined consume less than 48 percent of the median income -- throughout the suburbs, including areas around Gaithersburg, Bowie, Chantilly and Dale City. But you also can find pockets of un-affordability in the farthest reaches of the Washington area. Combined housing/transportation costs exceed that 48 percent threshold in the Solomons Island area of Calvert County, according to the Web site.

The site has some major drawbacks. Although it was launched nationwide only last week, the database uses 2000 Census data, which are growing stale. Housing and transportation expenses have soared since the government collected that information. Even the recent decline in home prices has barely unwound the big run-up in values that occurred after 2000.

"The trend is sort of in the wrong direction," said Peter Haas, director of CNT's geography, research and information department, who acknowledged that housing and transportation costs are now greater than those reflected on the Web site.

The site also reports $57,291 as the median income for the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan statistical area. That's on the low side for Washington, where more recent Census Bureau estimates pegged the median at $78,978. The lower figure is based on the Census Bureau definition of the Washington-Baltimore MSA as stretching from the Chesapeake Bay west into parts of West Virginia, where lower wages pull down the average.

The outdated numbers mean you can't simply pluck a dollar amount from the Web site and use it as the basis for your real-live, right-now budget. But you can still use the site to compare one neighborhood to another. Then you can develop your own price estimates to help gauge whether a home will truly be affordable once you add in the transportation expenses you will bear once living there.

Always do a trial commute during rush hour before you make an offer on a home. Time the ride and estimate your gas consumption. If you're thinking of taking Metro or commuter rail, price out the weekly expense.

As you size up neighborhoods, take the time to figure out where you will worship, buy groceries, go to the movies, enroll the kids in dance class or pick up an extra gallon of milk. Is bus or rail service available, even if only as a backup for days when your car is in the shop? Will your children be able to ride bicycles to the pool, or does a six-lane highway make that too dangerous?

It's easy to underestimate your total transportation budget when you house-hunt on a quiet Sunday afternoon. And misjudging your travel needs can seriously derail your after-purchase budget.

E-mail Elizabeth Razzi at razzie@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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