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Homebuyers now driven to consider commuting time


Until now, most homebuyers walked into a realty agent's office asking for a big house on a quiet street. They still want the big house and the quiet street -- but, more and more, they're also asking about the commute.

"Location -- in terms of access to traffic arteries -- is becoming a major factor in housing," says Carolyn Janik, the real estate author.

Most people don't demand country homes with enough land for a couple of horses to graze. Yet they still want a three- or four-bedroom house with a family room and a yard. Regrettably, high housing costs are forcing people to travel greater distances from work to reach such a dream home.

"There's a feeling of outrage at having to move to the distant exurbs to get what you want," says Robert Dunphy, a senior researcher at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

To make matters worse, traffic congestion has slowed many commuters. They may have bargained for the distance, but they didn't bargain for stop-and-start traffic all the way to work.

Take I-95 in Maryland, for example. The volume of vehicles traveling on the highway, at a point just south of Highway 100 in Howard County, increased 54 percent in the last decade, says Roger Jorss, a senior traffic forecaster for the State Highway Administration.

There are several reasons why traffic congestion is worsening. The baby boom generation, advancing into its 40s, has reached its prime driving years. In addition, there are more women working, which means more commuters.

Traffic experts don't expect much relief in the future. Financially strapped governments can barely cope with the need for road repairs. They have little money for massive programs for broadening roadways or expanding highway networks, not to mention mass transit.

Until now, people have been slow to change their homebuying behavior.

"There's no sense of a crisis like the kind of crisis that would occur if a water main broke and the public couldn't get water," Mr. Dunphy says. Indeed, some people have accepted longer and longer commutes to fulfill their housing expectations, commuting, for example, from Frederick County to Washington.

But the commuting issue is becoming more and more important, housing experts say. That means more buyers will be interested in buying your property if it's located near employment centers, major highways, subway stations or rail stations that serve commuters.

"How long will it take me to get to work? That's going to become a critical factor high on the list of considerations when people buy a house," predicts Ira Gribin, who chairs the

Housing Needs Committee for the National Association of Realtors.

To be sure, location has always been a key factor in demand for real estate. Buyers have long held a general preference for a home located on a peaceful street in a low-crime area close to good schools, shopping and their jobs. But in a society with shrinking leisure time and more family members working, commuting time is rising on the list of important variables, Mr. Gribin says.

"Communities with good commuting access are appreciating faster than communities more remotely located," says Ms. Janik, the real estate author.

She recommends that homebuyers consider not only their own needs but also the investment potential of homes well-situated for commuting. Sellers of such properties also can maximize the price they receive for such homes, she says.

Realty specialists offer these pointers:

* If you're buying, be careful how you analyze a home's commuting access.

Don't make false assumptions about the time needed to travel from a home you're thinking of buying to your workplace. Try out a potential commute.

Make the commute at the times you would normally do so. Naturally, travel times can increase at rush hour. Remember, too, that traffic levels can be wildly different on weekends and weekdays.

"Too many fall in love with a house and try the commute on a weekend," Ms. Janik observes. "That's not good enough. It could take one and a half times longer to do the commute on a weekday."

* If you're selling, promote your home's access to commuters.

Don't just tout your well-located home's accessibility in a general way. Get very specific. Calculate the number of miles or minutes to area employment centers, whether they be urban or suburban, and to local subway or train stations. Also remember airport access information, which is becoming increasingly important.

Type up the information and provide it to prospective buyers who visit your home. Also, provide buyers specific directions on how to reach the points mentioned in your handout.

The exception to the rule involves a home that's remotely situated. Naturally you wouldn't want to claim such a house is a mere two hours from downtown. Rather, you'll want to focus on the tranquillity of the environment surrounding your place.

"Talk about the place as an ideal setting to keep an English sheep dog. Remember there's a buyer for every kind of home," Ms. Janik says.

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