Top schools, top house prices

Centennial: Parents seeking the best education for their children are snapping up homes in the Howard County school district.

March 31, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

In the 24 hours after Kojii Ray put her brick colonial on the market, nine people visited, five wanted to buy, and one offered more than the asking price.

That's the power of owning a home in the Centennial school district.

In Howard County, where many residents are obsessed with schools, this Ellicott City community is the center of the universe. Houses sell for up to $100,000 more than elsewhere in the county -- sometimes even before they're listed. Buyers all want the same thing: to send their children to Centennial schools, which boast some of the highest test scores in Maryland.

Demand is so high that some real-estate agents routinely call around Centennial to see if anyone's planning to sell. The buyers are ready and waiting.

"I've got a list of 40, 50 people in any given month that are looking to be in Centennial school district," said Creig Northrop, a Coldwell Banker Realtor who lives in the area and estimates the median house price at $350,000.

"I'd say 90 percent of the people calling me ask for Centennial first," he said. "They say, `I want to be in the best school district.' "

By the numbers, the district looks enticing.

Centennial High School was named one of the best schools in the nation by Newsweek this month (No. 284 out of the top 418). Its class of 1999 had the highest average SAT score in the county, 1,143.

Burleigh Manor Middle, which feeds into Centennial High, has the highest composite score among Howard middle schools on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test. Centennial Lane Elementary has the second-highest MSPAP score among Howard elementaries.

And most of the other elementary and middle schools that send a percentage of their students to Centennial High rank well above the county's MSPAP average.

The Centennial community consists primarily of single-family homes, many at least 10 years old -- ranging from modest ranchers to the million-dollar mansions in an area called The Preserve.

It's the sort of place where lawns are neat, streets are lined with flowering trees and kids sell lemonade from stands in front of their homes. Families flock to Centennial Park for the scenic lake and recreational facilities. U.S. 29 and 40 are close by.

But residents and real-estate agents say it's the schools that drive some buyers to look only at Centennial, and to bid on houses selling for tens of thousands more than comparable places in some other Howard communities. Real-estate ads use the schools as a selling point.

Pat Hiban, an agent with Re/Max Advantage Realty in Columbia, tells clients that all Howard schools are great. He's a Wilde Lake High School graduate.

But he knows it's easy for buyers to look at the county's good standardized test scores, see that Centennial ranks at the top, and say: "The best of the best -- how can you go wrong?"

"Property values in Howard County are usually driven by school test scores, and that's the bottom line: That's what makes Centennial High School hot," Hiban said.

"It becomes a supply and demand situation," he said. "It creates an auction atmosphere."

Hiban said a three bedroom, 2 1/2 bath rancher with a two-car garage on a quarter- to a half-acre lot could cost about $180,000 in certain areas of Howard County. The same house could cost $280,000 in Centennial, he said.

It's a phenomenon that real estate agents see in certain communities across the country, said Judith DiFilippo, past president of the Maryland Association of Realtors. Schools affect property values, and so buyers -- whether or not they have children -- are interested in moving into areas where they believe education is excellent, she said.

"School is the No. 1 issue in buying property anywhere in the United States," said DiFilippo, a Long & Foster agent based in Montgomery County. She sees high demand for Bethesda-area homes because some parents want to send their children to Walt Whitman High School.

People who find a house in the well-kept Centennial community, meanwhile, often say they feel lucky.

"You won't see too many `For Sale' signs around here," said Richard Holt, who moved to the area from Texas for a new job. His 15-year-old son, Adam, is a freshman at Centennial High.

His family bought a four-bedroom Centennial house that Holt found by accident. There was no "For Sale" sign. But he liked the house, and his real-estate agent knew that the owners were almost ready to sell.

Holt signed a contract before they could put the house on the market.

His son is enjoying school, which is one of the reasons Holt decided not to move the family when he got a new job in Alexandria. Instead, he's commuting an hour each way.

"We came to this area specifically for Centennial High School," Holt said. "The thing that impressed me is the behavior of the children."

Buying into the area does not guarantee a classroom seat at Centennial High, however. Some residents know that only too well.

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