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Trade-offs to mull when considering a walkable neighborhood

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Jon Coile, chairman of Rockville-based multiple-listing service MRIS, writes occasional commentary on the Washington area housing market.

You often hear the buzzword “walkability” as a factor in home buying.

While this isn’t a universal requirement for buyers, there is definitely a growing subset of the home-buying population interested in this factor, perhaps fueled by people of all ages becoming increasingly health conscious and physically active. All you need to do is look at the cranes crowding the Washington skyline to realize how much construction is underway to accommodate those who want to live close to the action.

When we talk about walkable communities, two types of neighborhoods generally come to mind: the densely populated downtown city neighborhood, where everything and everyone are close together, and suburban communities close to a main thoroughfare. If you live in Bethesda two blocks off Wisconsin Avenue, you can still walk to shops or restaurants.

Walkability increasingly drives developers and real estate market

Demographically, it is typically younger home buyers who want walkability. They like to be right in the thick of things. Millennials and those younger are getting driver’s licenses later, and some maybe not at all. However, older home buyers also are looking for walkability. They might be concerned about fitness in their later years and are trying to get out and walk more.

If you’re thinking about buying in a walkable neighborhood, the first and most important decision you need to make is how long you plan to be there. Because as you progress through the typical home-buying life cycle, your need for walkability changes. The neighborhood that’s attractive when you are in your early 20s because you can walk to your favorite bar is usually not the same one where your kids can walk to the park or school in a few years. If you’ve got a young child, that’s probably not the time when you’re thinking about buying in Dupont Circle; you’re probably going to want to be somewhere like Arlington.

Walkability vs. affordability

There are definitely trade-offs that come with walkability; because everything is so close together, parking is at a premium. But if walkability is really what you’re after, parking may be less important than proximity to public transportation. And with the advent of services such as Uber and Zipcar, owning a car has become less crucial.

You also need to consider how important the age and size of the home are to you, as it can be tough to find new, modern housing in walkable neighborhoods. If you are looking for a townhouse or a condo, you can find that, although it might be above a restaurant. But if you want a large single-family home or a large yard, that is much more difficult to find, and if you do, it is probably not going to be new construction, so it might not have the layout and conveniences you’re after.

Are the Washington suburbs really that walkable?

Finally, you have to think about how much you value solitude. Very generally speaking, as population density increases, you also get more noise and more commotion. So if you need your peace and privacy, farther out in the suburbs may suit you better. You can get your exercise by walking through the trees rather than a shopping district.