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Analysis: Better Schools, Housing Prices Require Longer Commutes

School Children HomeThough suburban home prices typically go up in relation to school district quality, according to a recent New York Times analysis, there are some “sweet spots,” where affordable housing doesn’t mean sacrificing a good education.

Using data from Redfin, as well as test scores from the Stanford Education Data Archive, Times writers Quoctrung Bui and Conor Dougherty analyzed school quality, home price, and commute time. What they found were a handful of pockets in the San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, and Chicago metro areas that still offer quality schools without the high price tag. The catch? They’re further out from the city and require longer commutes.

“Living in the suburbs can save money, but residents pay in the form of longer commutes and loss of urban amenities,” Bui and Dougherty wrote.

The writers listed Boston as a good example.

“In the Boston area (where many suburban school districts are considered first-rate),” the analysis stated, “more expensive school districts like Brookline, Massachusetts, tend to have strong scores and relatively short commutes. Equally good districts, like Lexington, may be cheaper, but people living there face longer commutes.”

Bui and Dougherty found that these sweet spots like Lexington are often because, in some cities, residents simply show a preference for urban living—no matter what school quality in the area looks like.

“But in some areas–particularly a handful of dense cities with good public transit–the preference for being in the city center seems to outweigh the importance of school quality by a huge margin,” they wrote. “Homes in central city locations are generally more valued than those farther out, and prices in the urban locations have risen far faster than in the suburbs since 2000.”

This was seen the most in San Francisco where, even though neighboring cities boast much better school districts, cost per square foot is significantly higher in the city. Minneapolis had the most comparable city vs. suburb prices.

“The Bay Area is the most extreme case: Homes in the central city carry such a huge premium that buyers in suburban cities like Albany and San Ramon end up paying several hundred dollars less per square foot even though the schools are significantly better than those in San Francisco.”

The public transit is key in these urban-dense cities, and it’s why similar trends can be seen in New York and Boston, too, Bui and Dougherty wrote.

“What these cities have in common is that they are less automobile-dominated,” the analysis stated. “They are among the few American cities where a significant share of the population walks, bikes or takes public transit to work. So the lifestyle difference between living in the city and suburbs in those metropolitan areas is much more stark than in other places in America, where nearly everyone drives.”

According to Nela Richardson, Chief Economist at Redfin, there are even smaller towns this applies to, too—namely Alexandria, Virginia, and Somerville, Massachusetts, which Richardson called “dense transit-friendly suburbs.” These are experiencing price increases tied to density, not school quality.

“But in places like Phoenix, L.A., Dallas and Atlanta,” she said, “the trade-off between living in the city and the suburbs is not as great, so why not go to where the best schools are and homes cost the least?”

According to the article, economists estimate that suburbs see a 2.5 percent jump in housing prices with every 5-percent increase in test scores.


About Author: Aly J. Yale

Aly J. Yale is a freelance writer and editor based in Fort Worth, Texas. She has worked for various newspapers, magazines, and publications across the nation, including The Dallas Morning News and Addison Magazine. She has also worked with both the Five Star Institute and REO Red Book, as well as various other mortgage industry clients on content strategy, blogging, marketing, and more.

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