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Ask McEnearney: What can you tell me about schools?

This week’s Q&A column is written by Rebecca McCullough of McEnearney Associates Realtors®, the leading real estate firm in Alexandria. To learn more about this article and relevant Alexandria market news, contact Rebecca at 571-384-0941 or email [email protected]. You may also submit your questions to McEnearney Associates via email for response in future columns.

Question: What can you tell me about schools?

Answer: “Class, today’s subject will be schools. Who can tell me which is the best school? Realtor, maybe you would like to answer this question? I’m sure you know where the best schools are located! You help buyers and sellers in different neighborhoods every day and must have the inside scoop!”

OK, so this dialogue might be fictional, but barely. Buyers who are choosing a home based on schools definitely hope to lean on their Realtor for help. The good news is they can and should — but with some important caveats.

Your Realtor can’t — not won’t — can’t tell you which schools are the best because (1) the question requires a subjective answer, (2) our opinion doesn’t actually matter, and most importantly, (3) it’s illegal. You read that right — by advising buyers to look at certain schools, Realtors could be accused of “steering” under the Fair Housing Act. According to the National Association of Realtors, “Steering” is the practice of influencing a buyer’s choice of communities based upon one of the protected characteristics under the Fair Housing Act, and it’s illegal. Realtors cannot tell you what neighborhood to choose, and therefore cannot tell you what school you should choose, either.

Fortunately, there are other resources, such as websites that provide a rating system of schools. But even before you look at schools and their ratings, you need to answer a few questions about the type of school you’d like your child to attend.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Does the size of the school matter to you?
  • How about the number of children per grade/class?
  • Are sports important? Which ones?
  • Is there a Gifted Student program?
  • Does the school offer AP/IB programs?
  • Does the school offer vocational programs?
  • What art programs are offered?
  • Is there a marching band?
  • Do they offer language immersion programs?
  • Are you considering private school?

Once you’ve given those questions some thought, there are websites you can go to that provide school ratings. A couple of common ones are niche.com (a personal favorite) and greatschools.org. Then, when you have a few to consider, call the schools. Ask for tour. Drive around the area. Is the area comfortable, too urban? Too isolated? What are the home prices like? (Your Realtor can definitely help with that question!)

TIP: Dive in deeper to really understand the basis for the ratings. Don’t just look at the numbers, look at parent ratings and comments, and talk to school administrators to better understand the ratings. Ask to speak to coaches if sports are important. Talk to department heads if science is their thing, or the band director. You get the idea.

Still, the ratings don’t tell the whole story. Despite the ratings, sometimes it’s just the friends your child makes that will make all the difference. Your children will have good teachers and bad teachers, good days and bad. It’s up to them and to you to make whatever school they go to the best experience they can have! No one school will be perfect for all of its students. Students often change schools as needed. Sometimes we just don’t know that until we get there.

A word of caution: Be careful when asking for people’s advice. Especially when it comes to their personal opinion. Schools change over time. Principals come and go. I went to the same high school that my brother and sister who were 9 and 11 years older than I. When they were there, the high school had a population of 2,000, and had a division winning football team. By the time I went, there were 750 students and no football team. Neighborhoods change over time. That school now has 3,500 students and is back to all its glory. The ratings don’t always catch up in time to give you an accurate picture.

According to niche.com, Fairfax County Public Schools system is the 12th largest school district in the country, with 198 schools servicing 188,000 students. That does not include the many private schools in the area. Choosing can be almost impossible.

I currently have clients moving here from Texas. Trying to compare their amazing experience there, and finding something similar here, is simply not possible as they have discovered. Therefore, you must weigh the priorities for your family, just as you do when you are buying a house. Eventually you will figure out what are the most important factors to you in the decision you are going to make.

Finally, if you want your child to be able to start school in the fall, you want to buy sooner than later in this market. We remain in a very strong sellers’ market. Buyers are still competing to find homes suitable for their families. Start now! This is usually the time of year we see the most listings. Now with COVID rates dropping, and the amount of people getting vaccinated on the rise, sellers appear more comfortable coming on to the market. If the trend continues like non-COVID times, once school is over and June nears an end, new homes coming to the market will likely drop significantly.

“That’s all class! The bell has rung. Enjoy your summer!”

Rebecca McCullough has built a successful real estate business in Alexandria and Northern Virginia by providing excellent service to her clients. If you would like more information on selling or buying in today’s complex market, contact Rebecca today at 571-384-0941 or visit her website RebeccaMcCullough.com.

If you would like a question answered in our weekly column or to set up an appointment with one of our Associates, please email: [email protected] or call 703-549-9292.

McEnearney Associates Realtors®, 109 S. Pitt Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. www.McEnearney.com Equal Housing Opportunity. #WeAreAlexandria

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