HomeFind a SchoolMoving

The real (estate) value of public schools

How free public education ends up costing parents a pretty penny.

By Carol Lloyd

How do you value your child’s education?

If this sounds like a chowder-headed question to ask a group of conscientious parents, it’s worth noting that economists have been parsing this issue for decades. But they’re not in search of feel-good maxims like “My children are priceless, so educating them is of the highest value to me.”

No, we’re talking cold, hard dollars and cents. As any real estate agent worth her smartphone knows, high-performing schools and higher price per square foot seem engaged in an eternal tango. The question that vexes economists is of the chicken-and-egg variety: Do better schools lead to higher home prices or the other way around?

Public school price bump

In many cities such calculations are hard to do without an advanced degree in statistics, but sometimes the value of public schools is starkly evident. Piedmont, Calif., a small, upscale city surrounded by economically diverse Oakland, is known for its top-rated schools. According to a recent scan of the multiple listing service, homes in Piedmont run at least $100K more than an Oakland home of the same size and quality located directly across the street.

In Cupertino, Calif., where virtually all the elementary schools rake in stratospheric scores on standardized tests, the price of run-of-the-mill ranch homes can go for several hundred thousand dollars more than those in nearby communities with mediocre schools. This premium doesn’t deter some parents: One father who moved his family so his children could attend the top-rated Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino told the New Yorker he'd circled the perimeter of the school district on a map and given it to his real estate agent.

When buying into the best goes bad

Jessica Gottleib, a mother and blogger based in Los Angeles, made a similar calculation, but it backfired. “I bought into a ‘good school’ neighborhood,” she says. “By moving just a few blocks away, we could have saved about $200,000.”

Gottleib discovered the problem with long-term bets on a school based on its past performance: You can’t control its future. After she moved her family into the new home, the high-performing neighborhood school — as Gottleib put it — “tanked.” Her children ended up in private schools. Now she cautions other parents to avoid making the same mistake: “I routinely tell moms to save their money and buy the house they love in the neighborhood they love.”

Better homes, better schools

Other parents report happier outcomes after buying into highly acclaimed school districts. Julie Rebboah, a teacher and the author of Magic Letters: The Keys to the World of Words, placed a high priority on finding the right schools for her two children. But when she and her husband ran the numbers, they realized they could neither buy in the San Francisco Bay Area in a good school district nor foot the bill for private school tuition. Instead, they decided to move out of the state — to the high-performing Lake Oswego School District in Oregon. “Our son is flourishing here, and our house payments are lower than in California,” she explains. “For our family, it was the right decision.”

When Kelly Utt-Grubb opted to homeschool her two young children instead of placing them in a local public school in Buford, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, she realized the search for the right school trumped all else, including homeownership. After carefully researching schools in numerous areas, she and her husband decided on Cary, N.C. They sold their home at a loss, became renters, and never looked back.

“We carefully researched Cary and the educational environment that goes along with living near the Research Triangle Park area of Raleigh-Durham,” Utt-Grubb says. “We also chose the specific elementary school my kids go to (Carpenter Elementary in Cary) and even moved into a rental house that is right behind the school.”

Putting a price on the priceless

For parents searching for both a home and a school at the same time, it’s worth attempting to crunch the numbers and analyze your choices.

Would you spend $50K simply for access to better schools — how about $100K or even $200K? Should you buy, say, a smaller home in a better school district to fend off private school bills? (And will it break the bank if your public school turns out to be a disappointment?) Would you trade in one version of the American dream (buying a home) for another (giving your children a better education than you had and renting a small apartment near a better school)?

Finally, it’s also worth remembering that if this anxious game of calculation and compromise feels stressful, you aren’t alone. Parents across the country are engaged in the same number-crunching madness, balancing the third bedroom against that school with the special science program. In the end, each family makes their choice based on dozens of factors — unique to their situation, values, and finances. The important thing for parents to remember is that when it comes to buying a new home, sometimes the biggest amenities are invisible: your child’s education.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"How many parents are able to move out of state or even to another part of town in order to enroll their kids in a public school that they think is better than another? While I would not want to have my child in a crime-ridden school, that is unlikely to happen if you just do not move into a neighborhood of with a high crime rate. Remember that school boards can change school boundaries which results in power struggles that in the end are probably won by the richest parents with the best connections. The best thing parents can do for their kids is to become involved in the school and their community and to provide their children (and their friends) with enrichment activities. The United States cannot continue NOT educating our children. Too much depends on our education “system� and we all need to back efforts to improve education until it is the best in the world and available to all, no matter where their home is located."
"It is definitely a balance between home and school. Beware, though, buyers. Test scores and reputation do not necessarily equate to outstanding schools. We bought our house based on being in the boundaries for the 'best' school in the district. We are sadly disappointed. Classrooms are crowded with state budget cuts, teachers are inexperienced, and the curriculum focuses on the low end kids. Our kids are very bright and bored to tears. They are learning very little, just coasting, waiting for the other kids to catch up. Next year, we will be homeschooling our kids. We just wish we would have saved the extra money and bought a much cheaper home. Best of luck to all of the parents out there. Cheers!"
"Regarding school choice option to other parents, As long as you pay the same tax amount of the (District patrons) that we home owners pay for our school District in the great school, I don't mind. What bothers us is to pay for higher school taxes, higher property price and then that those whom cannot afford or choose not to live in the other area still want to benefit from what we pay.That is not fair either. Maybe the District and the County could charge parents whom want school choice a special tax amount to level out the difference so that your child can go to a better district regardless of where you live; that would be fair."
"Thank you for this timely article. I intently came to this site to research a school near a home I am planning to purchase. Like the other parent in the article, I know the school district I want and have been very specific in my request for listings. This gives me something to consider."
"My husband and I are in this situation. My husband was transferred to a new city and the search for an affordable house within the boundaries of a great school is proving difficult. What makes me angry is the millions of families who cannot afford to move their families out of a bad school into a better one. It's not fair and the only way I can see to change it is to allow parents to choose where their children go to school."
"Thank youfor this wonderful article. It came at just the right time. We are looking at a move from Los Angeles to New England. We are in a private school and looking at public schools. We wrote the the mayor, superintendent, and PTA president at these new schools and heard back SAME DAY from ALL. So impressive. It spoke volimes and we belive we are on the right track! "
"My husband & I are going through this exact scenario right now. We want to move East to better schools than CA has to's not easy finding the right place! I will check on the suggestions in your article though. Thank you for publishing this... "
"We chose to move to a better smaller school district and yes, it is very stressful in this economy buying and selling a house but for us it was the most important thing and we do not regret it one single bit. In fact I wish we could have done it earlier as my children are now in 3rd grade and 6th grade. But rather late then never.It is so worth it. They only get one education for life."