Houses with SAT scores

Arithmetic: Having a good school nearby can add thousands of dollars to the value of a house, especially in Howard County.

January 20, 2002|By Susan Ferrechio | Susan Ferrechio,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Six years ago Lynda J. Mitic began her tenure as principal of Centennial High School in Ellicott City and right away she got the message - even if it was in jest.

"I did have people say to me, `Keep those housing prices up now,' with a twinkle in their eyes, half serious," Mitic said at the time.

Typically in real estate the three magic words are "Location. Location. Location." But for many buyers what's more important is "Schools. Schools. Schools."

The connection between the price of a house and the reputation of a school district is a powerful one, particularly in Howard County, where the public schools are among the best in the state.

Next Thursday's announcement of new boundary lines for as many as eight of Howard County's 10 high schools has raised anxiety levels among parents who fear that their children may wind up in a school with a lesser reputation.

The wrong shift might also mean a slower appreciation in home values.

"Schools are important for every buyer, with or without kids," said Greg Kinnear, a real estate agent for Re/Max Advantage in Columbia. "People still look at the schools because they can have a pretty big impact on prices."

Many factors come into play in determining the price of a house, such as lot size, location and architectural style. In Howard County, the school system plays a major role, too.

County test scores are among the highest in Maryland, helping to explain why single-family homes in Howard cost tens of thousands of dollars more than in neighboring counties.

Through the first six months of 2001, the average sales price for a detached home in Howard County was $307,507, according to the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the multiple-listing database used by real estate brokers. For comparison, in Anne Arundel, the figure was $242,043; in Baltimore County it was $202,084; and in Carroll County it was $206,145.

The connection between school performance and property values is distinct even within Howard.

Houses in neighborhoods that feed into Centennial High in Ellicott City and River Hill High in Clarksville can often command prices 15 percent higher than similar properties in other parts of Howard and the region.

"You have a premium of $25,000 to $50,000 in Centennial," said Lenn Arley, a broker at Inc., an exclusive buyers agency based in Columbia.

Certainly education is paramount in parents' minds, but it's also easy to see why some would be concerned about what will happen to their home values when the new high school boundaries are announced.

"That could shake up the entire county," according to Thomas Pirritano, who operates Pirritano and Associates, an Ellicott City appraisal firm. "It could affect housing. Some positively, some negatively."

Big decision

The Howard County Board of Education will approve Thursday new boundary lines for next fall to relieve overcrowding and fill a new school, Reservoir High in Fulton.

A number of plans have been submitted and scrutinized.

One would move students who attend Atholton High east of U.S. 29 to a closer school and would split the upscale and popular River Hill Village between River Hill High and another high school. Currently all River Hill Village children can attend River Hill High.

Another proposal calls for expanding the zone of Centennial, a move that is sure to please those just outside the school's boundary. But such a move would add many more students to an already crowded school.

"There is obviously going to be some initial fallout or concern as far as the school system. But I think the parents worrying about their property values dropping significantly are misunderstanding the total piece of the market that we have," said Steven James, an agent with Re/Max Columbia.

"Education is good, but it is only one piece of the pie, especially if you are in the River Hill area. They still have the new village center, the gym and the location going for it. So I still think they will do well, even if part of River Hill gets split off. They will still do fine."

Despite frequent boundary changes, many parents are willing to take the risk to gain access to the best public schools.

Among them is Terry Beckman, who, when relocating from California, chose the Fairways neighborhood after hearing about the high-performing Howard County school system.

Her son is a junior at Centennial, but Beckman often worried that, because their home sits on the periphery of the school boundary area, he risks being shuffled to one of several new high schools that have opened during the past few years. The risk is particularly high because Centennial is overcrowded.

Nevertheless, Beckman said she accepted that risk when she bought her house.

"Making those kinds of decisions don't always last forever," she said. "Whenever a school is built, they have to fill those schools."

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