What $300K-$400K can buy you in the region's best school districts

Located just blocks away from the Lower Merion School District, this home along Oakford Road in the Ardmore section of Haverford Township was listed for sale on May 31 for $289,000. If it had been in the Lower Merion School District, Realtor Laurie Murphy thinks it might have been priced at more than $300,000.

When Realtor Laurie Murphy listed the quaint, almost cottage-like, house in Ardmore for sale on May 31, she had no hesitation in believing the property would fly off the market.

After all, the number of homes for sale across the Philadelphia region, and across the nation overall, has reached astonishingly low levels. Demand remains high. And with three bedrooms, 1½ bathrooms, more than 1,200 square feet, and a park just down the street, Murphy believed, her listing, priced at $289,000, would be considered a steal.

Yet despite the new backyard deck, the stainless-steel kitchen appliances, and a driveway that accommodates two cars, there was one thing Murphy thought might prevent the property from selling for more than $300,000: Located on the 2800 block of Oakford Road, it’s in the Delaware County section of Ardmore, not in Montgomery County. Meaning that whoever purchases it will miss out on the highly coveted Lower Merion School District — by merely a few blocks.

“It’s so crazy what a difference it makes,” said Murphy, based in Bryn Mawr with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach. “If this was in Lower Merion, it would probably be going for at least $350,000. I’ve already gotten a million calls asking, is this home in Haverford or Lower Merion?”

To be sure, the Haverford Township School District is nothing to knock. According to the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile prepared by the state Department of Education, Haverford High School has an academic score of 94 out of 100 and a graduation rate of more than 97 percent.

But it can be hard to beat the school districts that have long ranked among the foremost in the region when it comes to home buyers’ preferences.

Demand for homes in top districts is nothing new, here or nationally, and is long considered the quintessential “chicken and egg” situation. Observers have frequently asked whether school quality influences home prices, or whether home prices influence school districts.

In the last few years, however, market observers say, the scramble to find homes in top-tier districts has become a full-out frenzy. With interest rates at historic lows and inventories down, bidding wars have become almost normal, they say. To secure properties, many buyers are offering more than asking price — sometimes by tens of thousands of dollars. Even bolder, Realtors say, many buyers are waiving standard contingencies, such as appraisals or financing conditions, to coax sellers to accept their bids.

(In typical home-purchase transactions, contingencies are established to protect the buyer. An appraisal contingency, for example, enables a buyer to renegotiate or even walk away from an offer if the appraisal for the home is lower than the buyer’s bid.)

House-hunting hysteria has boosted prices in some zip codes in the region higher — especially those along the Main Line, where trendy downtowns and highly rated school districts predominate. Meanwhile, observers say, such sharp price spikes are posing a massive problem for typical middle-class families, many of whom want to send their children to the best public schools but are increasingly finding that such homes in a price range they can afford are nearly unattainable.

“It’s really tough,” said Linda Theuer, a Delaware and Chester County-based Realtor at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach. For $300,000 to $400,000, she noted, “there’s not a lot that you can buy for the Wayne area.”

To see what was available across the region during the week following Memorial Day, the Inquirer scoured listings in the top school districts of suburban Pennsylvania and South Jersey to find houses listed in or close to the $300,000-to-$400,000 range. That range is much higher than the median price of a house in the Philadelphia suburbs — in the first quarter of 2017, about $216,000 — but represents an entry point for some of the top districts.

The school districts were selected using data from the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile and other third-party websites that release regular rankings based on test scores, graduation rates, teacher quality, and more.

In these sought-after districts, the Inquirer found, houses listed in that price range were often snatched up within days, if not hours. Properties were off the market before weekend open houses even rolled around. Some of the houses progressed from “for sale” to “under agreement” as this article was being written.

For the most part, Realtors said, it’s rare to find homes at this price point in the school districts chosen. Many of the houses were no bigger or more grandiose than those in other parts of the region, but the appeal of the school districts, and the communities that comprise them, drove the prices up. According to Realtor.com, a national study last year revealed that, on average, homes within higher-rated public school districts are 49 percent more expensive.

Many buyers in the region see those prices as more than worth it.

School quality was Dionne Dent-Lockett’s number-one priority when she and her husband were looking for a home for their two children, she said. Ultimately, after months of searching, her family last year settled in Ardmore — in the Haverford Township School District.

“We pounced on our house in Ardmore immediately,” Dent-Lockett said, paying about $305,000. “I literally had a couple of hours to think it over.”

“But for the next 12 years, I would have lived in a trailer park just to get my kids to a good school district, to get them a good footing in life.”

Here are some the houses the Inquirer considered from May 30 through June 2. (Median prices are based on Trend Multiple Listing Service data; median income, on U.S. Census data.)

Berwyn, Pa. 19312

Tredyffrin/Easttown School District

Located in Berwyn in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, this three-bedroom, two-bathroom home was priced at $410,000 for 1,302 square feet. It went under agreement within six days. (JUDY PETERSON / Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach)
Finding a home with four bedrooms priced about $400,000 in the Tredyffrin/Easttown district is fairly difficult, said Realtor Susan DeCurtis. Most are priced higher. (JUDY PETERSON / Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach)

Bedrooms: 3                    Bathrooms: 2           Home size: 1,302 square feet      Built: 1950

List price: $410,000

Median price for zip code in first-quarter 2017: $567,000

Median household income in zip code: $115,473

Realtor Susan DeCurtis listed this quaint home on a private drive, and it went under agreement within six days, she said. “People make decisions on real estate based on the school system,” said DeCurtis, of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach in Devon. “When you are in a good school system, you know your property is going to retain its value and that if you need to sell, it will be in a desirable area.”

Wayne, Pa. 19087

Radnor Township School District

Listed at $342,800, this twin home in Wayne has four bedrooms, 1½ bathrooms. The Radnor School District is among the most sought-after in the region. (DAVE OCENAS)



Realtor Linda Theuer said she advises all her clients to buy in a top school district, even if they don’t have children. (DAVE OCENAS)

Bedrooms: 4                    Bathrooms: 1.5           Home size: 1,438 square feet      Built: 1925

List price: $342,800

Median price for zip code in first quarter 2017: $445.000

Median household income in zip code: $118,801

Realtor Linda Theuer said she put this twin house, on the 400 block of St. Davids Avenue in Wayne, on the market about 11 a.m. on Friday, May 26. By the end of the day, she had two offers. “It was under contract by Saturday morning,” said Theuer, of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach. “So I canceled the open house for it, but close to 30 people still showed up.

“In a market like this, where there’s so little inventory, it’s very, very difficult to find a home in a good school district,” Theuer said. “With the internet and young people being so savvy, they are watching this stuff, and they arrive with checkbook in hand — it doesn’t give you a lot of options.”

Moorestown, N.J. 08057

Moorestown Township School District 

Moorestown schools are often ranked among the best in South Jersey. This home on Overbrook Circle was listed at $355,000. (FRANK SOLLECITO)
The house, with more than 1,700 square feet, has been on the market for more than 50 days. Realtor Lorna Kaim said it’s a home with “great bones” and a “good price point” to get into the Moorestown area. (FRANK SOLLECITO)

Bedrooms: 4                 Bathrooms: 2.5       Home size: 1,736 square feet     Built: 1960

List price: $355,000

Median price for zip code in first quarter 2017: $406,250

Median household income for zip code: $120,625

“The $300,000-to-$500,000 range tends to be a very hot price point in Moorestown,” said Realtor Lorna Kaim of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach. This house, however, has been on the market for more than 50 days. It has “great bones,” Kaim said, and is at a “good price point for people to get into the Moorestown area.”

“A little elbow grease would go a long way here,” she said.

In 2005, Money magazine named Moorestown as the best town to live in in the United States, a distinction Kaim was quick to point out. With a top-notch school district and taxes lower than in some zip codes in nearby Camden County, this Burlington County township, she said, has seen bidding wars break out for homes in both high- and low-end price ranges.

Buckingham, Pa. 18902

Central Bucks School District 

Located on the 2800 block of Bellows Place in Buckingham Township, Bucks County, this four-bedroom home sits within the boundaries of the Central Bucks School District, consistently considered one of the better districts in the region. Broker Liz Schaefer priced the home last month at $350,000, $20,000 higher than the latest sale in the neighborhood. The house sold within a week. (Berridge Photography)
Built in 1978, the home has about 2,342 square feet. (Berridge Photography)

Bedrooms: 4              Bathrooms: 1.5       Home size: 2,342 square feet                Built: 1978

List price: $350,000

Median price for zip code in first quarter 2017: $432,350

Median household income in zip code: $125,563

This house in Buckingham was the largest of the ones looked at and was priced at $350,000. Liz Schaefer, a broker at Realty One Group Legacy, said she listed the home $20,000 higher than the most recent sale on the block. It sold within a week.

“This price range is on the lower end for Central Bucks,” Schaefer said. “Everything here is selling quickly these days — just at a higher price range.”

And not all the buyers are parents of schoolchildren, Schaefer said: Many are empty-nesters or retirees. “They know it’ll resell faster and higher.”

Narberth, Pa. 19072

Lower Merion School District

Priced at $430,000, this house is in Narberth Borough, part of the Lower Merion School District. (PAMELA CLOUD)
Realtor Pamela Cloud noted that Narberth itself is also a draw. “It’s unique and interesting,” she said. (PAMELA CLOUD)

Bedrooms: 3                    Bathrooms: 1       Home size: 1,172 square feet       Built: 1915

List price: $430,000

Median price for zip code in first quarter 2017: $434,500

Median household income in zip code: $112,229

Realtor Pamela Cloud of Coldwell Banker Preferred in Media said there’s much more to Narberth than just the Lower Merion School District: “It has a cute downtown that is becoming more popular, it is walkable.”

Though nearly the same size as houses in the Ardmore section of Haverford Township, this house, along the 300 block of Meeting House Lane, was priced tens of thousands of dollars higher. Yet it was in great demand: The property received multiple offers and went under agreement in early June.

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